What’s the Right Number of Drafts?

“What’s the right number of drafts?”

Meaning: how many drafts does it take to produce a polished piece of work?

When I ask that question during workshops, people usually reply between two and five. (People who are familiar with my work and think they know where I’m heading usually answer with a higher number.)

But if there’s a journalist, or former journalist, in the class, they always give the right answer: “As many as it takes.” I guess journalists are taught this by their teachers and mentors.

I was reminded of this by a recent article on writing by the brilliant Rebecca Solnit in which she mentions, “I’ve seen things that were amazing in the 17th version get flattened out in the 23rd.” I imagine some readers were all: “Wait–what? 17 drafts?! 23 drafts?!!!”

For me, 17 is nothing. I probably rewrite every word of my books two or three dozen times. Even “simple” blog posts like this one get rewritten five or ten times.

This sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But it might not be as much as you think. By “draft” I mean a quick runthrough of a piece, or a section of a longer work, during which I fix only the most obvious problems. I can do a draft of this blog post, for instance, in five minutes.

Five drafts times five minutes/draft is still twenty-five minutes minimum for a blog post. It’s a nontrivial amount of time, especially when the pressure’s on to post frequently. (Plus, the occasional idea that never gels.) But it usually yields a good result, which is my main concern.

Keep in mind, also, that nonperfectionists can usually finish many drafts faster than a perfectionist can finish one or two–assuming she even finishes.

Working this way yields a better result because:

1) It’s holistic – allows me to better visualize and work with the piece (or section) as a whole.

2) It’s organic. I’m not trying to force or control anything; just letting the piece grow and take form at its own pace. Creativity hates attempts at control, and often just shuts down in the face of them.

I have no idea what Solnit means by “draft,” or how long hers take–and, ultimately, I’m in favor of whatever process works for any given writer. (The proof’s in the productivity!) But if anyone reading this is thinking, “Harumph! My work is too [intellectual / technical / specialized / whatever] for this freewriting-type process to work,” I humbly object! In her classic, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Joan Bolker strongly endorses freewriting even for intellectual work, saying, “it causes you less pain while you’re doing it, and produces better writing.”

Writing, it turns out, is just writing, regardless of what is being written. “Easy,” “hard,” “intellectual,” etc., are just labels we stick on whatever we happen to be working on, and mostly aren’t helpful.

And nonperfectionism will speed, improve, and add joy to, not just your writing but every aspect of your work and life.

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