How many drafts is enough to prepare a manuscript for professional editing? A first or second draft isn’t worthy of the investment, after all. A manuscript isn’t ready for editing until you’ve set it aside for weeks or months (to regain some distance and objectivity), sought out feedback from objective parties, and revised it thoroughly from the story level up. A professional edit before then would be a waste of time and money.
New novelists often come to me after three drafts: one to cover initial changes of heart involving the story, another after feedback from early readers, and a third to fiddle with grammar and spelling. That covers less than half the ways I recommend strengthening your manuscript before you seek professional editing.
The number one obstacle to effective self-revision is insufficient time away from your manuscript. The adrenaline rush of completing your first draft whips you into a frenzy. You’ve crossed the finish line! You’re ready for editing! Your book could be on the shelf in just weeks!
The very first thing you should do with a new manuscript is put it away.
Slow down there, babycakes.
As pumped as you may be to push to publication, the very first thing you should do with a new manuscript is put it away. Don’t look at it for weeks—months, if you can stand it. Let it simmer while you take time away from the page and regain perspective.
Go ahead, watch some movies and read some books. Get outside. Recharge your creative batteries. You’re going to need the energy for the work ahead.
The Six-Draft Writing Method
When you’re constructing a novel, think like a builder. Start at the bottom of your story house and build up.
1. The Good Bones Draft
2. The Story Draft
3. The Plot/Scene Draft
4. The Feedback Draft
5. The Writing Draft
6, The Tweaking Draft
While most new authors assume they’ll be spending a lot of time checking grammar and spelling, you’ll see from this list that there are more drafts involved in foundation revisions than there are in framework revisions. Put your time and effort where it counts.
Generate as many drafts within each phase as you need to reach your revision goals. You may need more drafts than I’ve listed at any given point. And yeah, you should try to fit in some break time in between drafts whenever the writing begins looking samey-samey to you or you find your eye glossing over the page without reading.
Foundation drafts help you strengthen the story itself. Does the story work? Where do readers pick up and lose interest? Are the characters relatable? Don’t bother agonizing over the writing at this stage; you have bigger fish to fry.
Draft #1 The Skeleton Draft, aka The Good Bones Draft
This is the very first draft of your manuscript, often called the discovery draft or your rough draft. I don’t believe in calling this a “shitty first draft.” There’s nothing shitty about it. It’s the framework or first layer of your book—no more, no less. There’s absolutely no reason to expect the first layer of words to read like a masterwork.
If you’ve written from an outline, a good bones draft could be a fairly coherent draft.
If you’ve used your skeleton draft to audition different approaches to the story or to figure out what happens, you can expect to head back into development. That could mean laying down an entirely new foundation layer—another skeleton draft—or it may simply mean spending more time and effort on your story draft. You’ll eventually be able to minimize or eliminate any extra follow-up, as you gain experience completing novels and become more fluent with story form and storytelling techniques.
Completing a skeleton draft can mean a lot of false starts and partial drafts with enough trial and error to see how a particular approach will work. You might write a draft to explore an alternative point of view or character viewpoint. You might try a partial draft to audition a different narrative tense. You might try a skeleton draft with an alternative ending. These are all ways to experiment with the framework of your novel.
Draft #2 The Story Draft
During this draft, you won’t be working with the writing itself. Instead, you’ll be working at the scene and chapter and plot levels. You’ll survey the story for obvious plot holes, clarify and make sense of character motivations, and pump up story conflict. Is the story’s basic structure in place? Look for the turning points and complications that build a coherent, cohesive story.
Time Out: Alpha Reading
This is a good time to seek first impressions from your very first readers—a spouse or friend, and maybe your writing partners. Alpha readers focus on high-level, big-picture issues. Be clear that the book hasn’t yet been proofread or polished in any way. You’re looking for help identifying major issues: plot holes, flat characters, boring sections, parts that are confusing or just don’t make sense.
Draft #3 The Plot/Scene Draft
This is one of the most important drafts in your novel’s development—but to my dismay, it’s the one most new authors skip. I get that it’s no fun to crawl through your manuscript scene by scene, but it’s your job as the author to make every scene worth readers’ while.
Does every scene move the plot forward or add some new facet to the characters? Once the story is solid, begin building stronger internal connections: pacing, foreshadowing, clues, themes. Have you forged a chain of progressively escalating complications driving the story from start to finish? Do any of the scenes seem superfluous or in the wrong place? Are there gaps in time or leaps of logic? Did you forget to tie up loose ends and use clues?
Many writers need more than one draft to complete plot- and scene-level cleanup. Speculative fiction writers often add another draft specifically devoted to worldbuilding.
Time Out: Workshopping
By this point, you’ve probably lost whatever scrap of objectivity you regained during the time you set the manuscript aside after you wrote it. Now you need fresh eyes. This is a good time for workshopping your manuscript or seeking the scrutiny of a trusted critique partner. If you didn’t share your manuscript with alpha readers earlier, loop back for that now. You need outside eyes on your story.
Draft #4 The Feedback Draft
This draft is all about implementing the reader feedback you just got. (You did get some, didn’t you?) Once you’ve finished this task, you’re done with changes at the story level until you’ve begun working with a professional editor.
Now you’re ready to shift the focus from what the story tells to how you’ve chosen to tell it.
Draft #5 The Writing Draft
This is your opportunity to add artistry and sheer sizzle.
This is your opportunity to add artistry. Fold in sensory imagery and figurative language. Identify and hone thematic elements. Also focus on narrative techniques: tighten exposition, render dialogue tight and snappy, prune unnecessary dialogue tags, check for consistency of point of view and narrative tense, and obliterate head-hopping.
This draft is also the time for dumping clichés and overused pet words, pruning unnecessary adverbs, beefing up weak verbs … all that word salad stuff.
Draft #6 The Tweaking Draft
Last call! Now’s the time to run spellcheck and fiddle with grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Don’t spend your goodwill points on volunteer proofreaders just yet; you’ll need their eyes for your post-editing revisions. Doing a thorough job here will allow your editor to devote more time and attention to deeper issues and could potentially lower your line editing or copyediting rate.
You may be wondering what happened to beta readers in this process. You’re likely to need another round of outside feedback after you’ve begun working with an editor, so unless your roster of willing readers overfloweth, save beta reading for after story-level editing (assessments, critiques, and developmental editing). Beta feedback will help you judge whether you’ve successfully solved the issues raised by your editor.
Keep in mind that these six drafts all happen before your manuscript ever makes it to the editor. Yes, you’ll get better at this, and yes, the process will eventually grow shorter. With tens of thousands of titles published every month, your book must sparkle to stand out. Insist on nothing less than your best.
Recommended Revision Resources
Revision is a lot of work, that’s no lie. I’m going to help you cut to the chase with what I think is the sharpest revision guide ever. Janice Hardy has assembled an at-home revision workshop she calls Revise Your Novel in 31 Days. It’s free, it’s right on her Fiction University website, and it’s absolutely brilliant. You don’t have to do it over an actual month’s time, although you could. Use as much or as little of it as helps you work through your manuscript in whatever time frame you have available.
If you’re really enthusiastic, I heartily recommend the full version using her book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft.
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If you’re looking for an editor to accelerate your journey from new writer to emerging author, that editor could be me. Let’s work together: short-term coaching for story development, long-term coaching for honing your writing, or story or line editing (my editing specialties). Let’s talk.