Q: How many rewrites until I have a final draft?
A: Do you want someone to publish it?
One of my writers recently admitted, “I get tired of what I’m writing after about three drafts.” Give her points for honesty. To be clear: I don’t think that means she’s giving up after three drafts. She’ll just give it a rest, until she’s got the stamina for another three drafts.
A writer I know recently sold her first article to a very prestigious publication. Took her 12 drafts. Yes, a dozen. And give her points for recognizing that each draft made the piece that much better.
Neither of those people would have passed muster in my friend Vanessa Park‘s middle school English class. This cartoon sums up the experience of one of her students—a young woman whose mother is New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly.
“Uh-oh. You did 82 drafts??!” the young man says. “I only did 79!”
The point, of course, is not quantity but quality. So how do you know when to take the D-word off the top of the page and call it a finished piece?
Sometimes you run into another D-word: Deadline. I could futz and finesse all day, but if I told the client she’d have it by 5pm then by God she has it by 4:59.
But if you don’t have an external deadline, give yourself an internal one. The futzing and finessing stage can last (probably literally) forever. When you find your revisions shrinking from paragraphs to sentences to words, you’re getting as close as you’re ever going to get.
Is it perfect? No. Because it’s never going to be. As my old coach Samantha Bennett (no relation) says, “Get a C.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent “C” work out into the world and found it received as an A-plus.
We writers can be unreliable judges of our own work. That’s why we need trusted colleagues to read and comment. Sometimes that’s a writing group. Other times it’s a sympathetic magazine editor who asks for Draft 9, then 10, 11, 12. Each time you get feedback, your work gets better.
How long until you have a final draft? If your editor doesn’t tell you, your deadlines will.
Of course you know how to read. But do you know how to read like a writer? Learn that essential skill in my critical reading course. Next cohort starts in late February.
Also published on Medium.