How many rewrites until I have a final draft?

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.

how many drafts until the final draft?

“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.

Do you feel a draft?

Writing yesterday about John Kenneth Galbraith drafting each of his speeches 13 times, I remembered a cartoon I saw framed next to the door of my friend Vanessa Park’s elementary school classroom. The caption seems to be cut off. It reads, “You wrote 82 drafts? I only wrote 79.”

Vanessa had some kick-ass English teachers when she was growing up (I know because we shared the same classes), and it turned her into a pretty rigorous English teacher herself. If the world had more of those, I might be out of a job. And so might Vanessa, who has now opened up her own editing shop. (She also blogs here.)

One year, she had a student whose mother created cartoons for The New Yorker. The experience Liza Donnelly‘s child had in Vanessa’s class inspired the cartoon above, an unpublished gift to my friend.

In the real world, 82 drafts might be a tad excessive. Early on in my career I had a client who went through so many drafts that I stopped identifying them by number and went to letters, which take longer to quantify. Later, working for someone even more finicky, I adopted a letter-plus-number system. Just thinking about it gives me PTSD.

Generally, sane clients require only a couple of drafts to get it right. I usually set my fee to accommodate two and a half drafts—first draft, major revision, minor revision. Some clients want to revise up until the last moment. Others, recognizing that they need time to rehearse—I love these clients!—freeze the speech a week or even two weeks ahead of time.

Musical theater legend Ethel Merman always stipulated that she would not accept changes to a new show less than a week before it opened. When composer Irving Berlin tried to change a lyric after her deadline, Merman retorted: “Call me Miss Bird’s Eye. It’s frozen.”

Would Berlin’s change have made the song better? Probably—he was Irving Berlin, after all. But would it have made Merman’s performance better to incorporate a change so close to opening night? Probably not. And she was enough of a pro to know that.

Draft when you need to, absolutely. But, as the old public service announcements used to say, “Know when to say when.”