Today I got thinking about drafts.

It happened because I finished reading a second or third draft of a friend’s novel and felt envious at the polish of it. I am now working on draft 5a of mine, and polish is just barely coming into play as I adjust paragraphs and sentences to better capture each character’s voice.

Well, my friend reminded me that hers is middle grade, not young adult, that it has one point of view and basically only four characters, etc. So probably I have only myself to blame for writing such a ridiculously complicated novel in the first place.

But I also got thinking about the drafts themselves.

Every writer probably has his or her own system for this. My friend and neighbor Shannon Hale keeps everything she deletes in a separate file. Laini Taylor says she writes in a “Working Doc” until she types something she likes, and then transfers it into the current draft. She’s also like me in that she saves every version of every draft.

If you were to open these drafts of mine, here’s about what you’d find:

1a – 14 pages, 2500 words. As far as I got in thinking this was a contemporary novel. Then a fairy snuck in and ruined that plan, so I had to start over.

1b – 50 pages, 8700 words. I let the fairy narrate for a while, just kind of exploring possibilities. Still wasn’t sure where the story was going.

1c – 295 pages, 75000 words. A full draft. But a wandering one. No clear motivations or even real story yet. Mostly just characters doing and saying stuff in a series of events that doesn’t make sense yet.

1d – 296 pages, 76000 words. I honestly don’t remember how this is different from 1c, but evidently there was some change I was afraid to save over.

1starts – Four or five different possible opening scenes that I explored while trying to figure out a new direction for the second draft.

2a – 313 pages, 82000 words. Worked on cohesion so that it might start to read like a story.

2b – 315 pages, 82000 words. Minor changes before handing the draft over to beta readers for the first time (notice I never showed any of the first drafts to anyone). You can tell when I send to readers because I put the file in pdf format first, my way of locking it in place.

3a – 320 pages, 89000 words. Believe me, on the third draft, I cut a lot. It’s just that I replaced everything I cut. If I wasn’t in love with the potential of a scene, I hacked it and started from scratch. This is where saving every version makes life easy: I had no fear of cutting because I knew the earlier scenes still existed in 2b.

4a – 322 pages, 89000 words. A false start. Sometimes I try to start revisions without really knowing my new vision for the story yet. I had to talk through the necessary changes with a writer friend before I could figure it out, so I left this behind and moved on to 4b.

4b – 330 pages, 92000 words. Doesn’t look like a big change, but again, I slashed and rewrote like crazy. Scenes changed POV, motivations were sharpened, character arcs smoothed out.

5a – 332 pages, 94000 words. I’m just getting started, but this time instead of slashing whole scenes, I’m adjusting at the paragraph and sentence level. If a scene drags, I trim it. If it’s lacking emotion or description or internal dialogue, I add to it. If the voice is wrong, I change it.

I’m not sure this will be a helpful post for anyone except my former self. Before I figured out my writing process, I kept begging other writers to tell me how it worked. I wanted to know how they attacked each draft. This is how I do it, and I find it works extremely well for me. Hopefully the breakdown will be useful to someone else.

What about you? What have you learned about drafts and process that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?

Leave a comment!

11 thoughts on “Draft–Draft Evolution

  1. I wish I’d known that the next draft would be better. I was so paralyzed with fear of messing things up, that I only made minor changes and can’t really call my second draft of my first book a new draft. It was more like I changed a few words here and there and wasted a lot of time. It wasn’t until I started hacking and slashing that things got better. Now, like you, I save every version and can always go back if things don’t work out. Thanks for the great post. 🙂


    1. Exactly. That’s how my first book went, too. That’s also why I love Laini Taylor’s analogy about hacking your way through a jungle: the hacking is actually very satisfying, once you know what you’re doing. 😀


  2. that’s certainly helpful. personally, i’m like the baseball player massively whiffing on revision. i finish a draft, leave it laying around for days, weeks, or years then just chip away.


  3. My story went through about a trillion part-drafts before I went back and did it all the way through for draft 1. I call those drafts the negative drafts. The longer your drafts are the closer you get…

    Btw, good luck with your baby! I’m very excited for you and hope it all turns out well 🙂


    1. Love the term “negative drafts.” It’s always funny to me how completely different those can be from how the book eventually turns out, at least for me.

      And baby’s here! He came at 2:46 am last night. Thanks for the well wishes!


    1. Just start jotting down ideas. They might seem mediocre at first, but the more of them you store up, the better they’ll get, and sometimes they’ll intersect and turn into something cool. 🙂


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