No, that is not a trick question.
That very question was posed recently by author Samantha Hoffman at the Chicago Writers Association blog. It got me thinking about my own writing journey and the multiple manuscripts that lie in my desk drawer. The ones I’ve begun but never quite finished. It should make you think about your own writing process too.
I’m impressed by people who can knock out a 90,000-word novel in three drafts. I figure they’re either doing something right, or their stuff is still needs significant editing and they don’t realize it yet.
As the calendar flips over to November and National Novel Writing Month begins, it’s a question that may run in the back of your mind too. How many drafts do I need before my story is truly polished and ready for publication?
That all depends on who you ask, of course. Hoffman has her own response: “Finish draft one, then keep going until it’s the best it can be, keeping in mind you’re not looking for perfection because perfection is a myth. Make it the best it can be at the time. Or keep going until you’re simply sick of it.”
Tegan Atkins at Writers’ Edit blog writes that the answer depends on the type of writer you are as well as several other factors:
* Genre – Fantasy authors may go through more drafts of their story than someone penning a memoir because they’re creating an entire new world from their imaginations. That creative process can take more time to iron out all the details.
* Writing experience – Newer writers are likely to go through more drafts of their story than someone who has published previously, although that’s not always the case. Kristin Hannah, who has published 24 books in her career, has been known to go through 10 drafts of her novels before they’re published, according to her website. Newbies are still conquering the nuances of fiction writing, such as plot development and character arcs. Because they’re working their way through the creative process, it will likely take them longer for them to be truly finished with their manuscript. In many situations, Sabre says, new writers never finish.
* Hobby vs. career – Career writers are more used to the writing process and have developed their systems for getting the manuscript done. Hobbyists may approach the effort more leisurely and may not be as nit-picky in their self-editing process. For their work to be taken seriously, career writers may hire a professional editor to critique their manuscript while hobbyists may bypass the services of a professional editor. Hobbyists’ goal may be to write a collection of stories for their family while career writers are more serious about getting their writing published to the masses.
In the end, the number of drafts you need depends on you – your goal for the story, how complex the story line is and how much of a planner and perfectionist you are with regards to your writing. I’ve heard that the industry standard is five to seven drafts to get a story in shape. As I finish the second draft of my work-in-progress, I can take comfort in knowing I’m on track.
So as we enter the month of November and National Novel Writing Month, remember that you can’t begin to think about multiple drafts until you get the first one down on paper. The real answer to the question “How many drafts are needed to complete my manuscript?” is this:
However many it takes to make you feel satisfied that you’ve done everything you can to make it the best it can be.
Or at least until you’re sick of looking at it.