How Many Drafts is Too Many?

Updated on March 1, 2024.

The book publishing process is simple at first glance.

  1. Drafting
  2. Editing
  3. Designing
  4. Publishing

As much as the editing process resembles an infinite loop, so too can the drafting process. Professional developmental editors are aware of this, of course. The editing/revision cycle can last months, if not years. Preparing your manuscript for that developmental edit can take the same amount of time. Editors like Sandra Wendel, Renni Brown and Dave King, and Richard Bradburn have great resources for self-editing for first-time, self-publishing fiction authors.

This week, I touch on what could be the sweet spot for just how many drafts your novel might need before you reach the overediting stage. At some point, we have to move our manuscripts forward, even if it’s not perfect. Especially when it’s not perfect.

Photo by Todoran Bogdan on Pexels

Draft Two (and Three): Structural and Plot Revision

The first 100 pages of my first draft are heading for an industrial shredder. While I have tracked several major events that are vital to the overall plot, there is no rhyme or reason with how they’re organized. Being the neurospicy editor-author that I am, though, organization is the backbone of my professional life.

For your second (and third) drafts, track your major events, the happenings that directly affect both how the external plot moves forward and how those events transform your character at each point. There are widely accepted structural frameworks, depending on your genre. Consider, though, the possibility that the framework that fits your main plot might not fit your subplot(s). Explore finding the best framework for each, and experiment with combinations that create the best flow.

Draft Three (and Four): Character Arcs and POV Revisions

Over the month of July, the writing software Scrivener became my best friend. One of its coolest features is a section for character sketches. You don’t need to use the specific template the software offers, but as you turn your focus to revising for character arcs and point-of-view mix-ups, the template categories provided come in handy more often than not.

Not only should these revisions focus on how (or whether) a character changes over the course of the story, but that there’s continuity in details. Physical characteristics, mannerisms, and personality are mostly static features. These drafts should keep that consistency apparent, even as you refine and evolve how their external goals and conflicts play with or against the internal ones.

Draft Four (Five and Six?): Line and Copyedit Revisions

Some may argue that these drafts are unnecessary. After all, if you’re seeking a professional editor at this point, especially a developmental editor, why spend time doing line and copyedits when the text may change by a lot anyway.

After only five chapters of my own editing, I’ve realized one thing: I. Love. My. Dialogue. For me, character voice is best expressed in dialogue, internal and external. Once you’ve done the major work of revising for structure, plot, and character, consider this final look at your story from a grammar, usage, and syntax standpoint. Chapter, paragraph, and sentence. This is less about what is happening and more about how you’re presenting it on the page. Trust me, it helps the developmental editor focus on the bigger issues you hired them for.

Photo by Lum3n

If this article tells you anything, it’s that I take my drafting and revision process seriously. As an author, it’s vital to me that my story is as clean and clear as possible, so my reader won’t be pulled out by implausibility, inconsistency, or incorrect spelling and punctuation.

How many drafts that takes for you is your own decision. My only goal is for you to see what each draft could cover so you don’t get bogged down trying to fix everything at once. As William Shakespeare’s King Lear says, “O, that way madness lies.”

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