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Craft of Writing

Do you Feel a Draft When You Write?

What is considered a draft of a piece of writing?

In a CNN article, Todd Leopold writes that when Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan writes a novel, it may go through fifty or sixty drafts.

Robert Boswell says, “I revise a lot. I write thirty, forty, fifty drafts of every story.” He saves every one of them.

In looking at my writing files, the highest number of drafts I’ve ever done for a story or novel is nine. On the surface, it’s clear that I need to do a lot more work before my writing is ready for submitting.

I recently submitted a short story to a Hugo House workshop in which I’m enrolled. It was still essentially draft number one, although I have reviewed and edited the file more times than I can remember. The workshop’s instructor, Joan Leegant (please check out her collection of stories, An Hour in Paradise), gave me some nice compliments and wrote in her assessment that the story was “very close” to being ready. One draft and nearly ready. But the great authors take fifty drafts. How can this be?

I started writing the story November 16. My Word file records that I’ve made 643 revisions and spent 4374 minutes on the story (73 hours). I still list it as draft number one, however, because I haven’t done what I would consider a major rewrite.

But if I follow the advice of Egan and Boswell, then mathematically, I’d have to multiply those numbers by fifty. That means the story wouldn’t be ready to submit until I reached 218,700 minutes of work. Assuming I work on it two hours a day (which wouldn’t allow much time for other projects), I wouldn’t be done for another 1822 days—that’s five full years—for one short story, mind you.

I’m curious to know what constitutes a new draft in the mind of a Pulitzer Prize winner like Egan, or a well-respected author like Boswell. Perhaps the way I write helps explain the difference. My method, and I don’t recommend this, is to write a sentence or two and go back, re-reading the previous sentences until the next one flows from what came before. I read and re-read and re-read. Most of the time this resembles a staring contest with the monitor. But eventually a new sentence makes itself known. This usually takes a few minutes, but has been known to take an hour or more. If I think ahead, and come up with something that I might use later in the story, I just type a note at the bottom of the page to remind me. I feel that approach creates a relatively coherent result, and requires fewer drafts, but then, I’m not a Pulitzer Prize winner (or particularly well-respected).

How many words must change to qualify as a draft? To me, a new draft means completely trashing maybe a quarter or more of the work. A scene revision, or a new direction for a character doesn’t fit that description for me.

But I don’t know. Maybe I’m trying to rationalize to make myself feel better. Maybe I need to do it Egan and Boswell’s way. Or maybe if authors tracked total time spent I could relate better. For sure the arbitrary definition of “draft” is not helping. If anyone has some advice on this, I would love to hear it.

BTW: This is draft one of this blog. I spent 71 minutes writing it.

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About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.

Discussion

12 thoughts on “Do you Feel a Draft When You Write?

  1. Hi, Joe. I take comfort from the way you describe writing, as I don’t really do a draft-revision process myself at all in the way the “greats” do it. Maybe that’s why I’m not great, but I’d rather think that everyone does things slightly differently unless they’ve been overly influenced by some writing “factory” or other. I revise endlessly, but I do it at the level of the word and of the sentence, and usually have a chapter in my mind as a whole before I write. I do think, though, that in the end “it all comes out in the wash,” as my grandmother would have said, i.e., there’s not that much difference in HOW you revise as there in in WHETHER OR NOT you revise. I particularly appreciate this post from you now, as I was having doubts about a novel I’m working on and have been stalled on seemingly forever: your post gives me confidence in my own system again, being as it is something like yours, and I know you to be a good and responsible writer. There’s safety in numbers, Joe, as the other side of this argument has already found (I mean of course all those who follow a formula for revising, and get approval for manner instead of matter).

    Posted by shadowoperator | February 27, 2015, 12:13 PM
    • Actually, if you read the full Boswell interview, , he does acknowledge that there are other writing processes that writers use. In fact, his wife is Antonia Nelson, and he said she writes far fewer drafts than he does, because she tends to internalize her thoughts about a story before she writes, whereas he explores the story posibilities at the keyboard. So I feel a little better about that.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | February 27, 2015, 11:13 PM
  2. I revise at the level of the sentence and at the thematic and construction levels several times until I feel that the story has achieved its own goal, and then wait usually a few months before I reread and edit. Some stories fizzle out, others don’t and so on, till the next story presents itself to my imagination. It ain’t easy!

    Posted by nadiaibrashi | February 27, 2015, 1:05 PM
    • No it isn’t. I’ve also been putting stories away for a few months or more to let them ferment (so to speak). But that’s tougher to do when the subject is somewhat topical. I am close to finishing the story mentioned in the blog, and since it’s about something that was recently in the news, I may have to send it out early and hope for the best.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | February 27, 2015, 11:15 PM
  3. I consider a “draft” each time I work through *an entire piece*, novel or short story. So I can spend months on portions of either, but when I finally get through *the entire piece*, first-through-final pages, that’s what I consider “a draft.” And I usually do about four drafts (I don’t do outlines, so organically “vomit out” the first draft, do most of the heavy lifting of fact checking and major re-writing in the second…do a third…then hand it off to beta readers, from which I do my fourth from their beta comments)…over the space of 2-3 years of part-time effort. I can languish for weeks on one chapter, or blow through it in a day. I’m not “married” to any of my words, life is short, and being a technical writer have all instilled within myself a certain “good enough meter” where I’m not going to spend weeks on one word or sentence…though will keep said conundrum in the back of my mind as I go forward, in case a better phrase/word materializes, then go back and redo it. And it doesn’t matter how many times I print and rework a chapter…if I rework a chapter 50 times, it’s still the overall front-to-back “go-through” of the *entire* manuscript I consider “a draft,” not the individual chapters or scene reworks.

    And if—as this has been the case with my recently published novels—getting them released languished for (in some cases) almost 20 years, then I’ve lost track of how many “drafts” I’ve done (including content update for the years going by, becoming a better writer, et cetera…)!

    Posted by fpdorchak | February 28, 2015, 7:11 AM
    • Frank, I’m beginning to see that you and I are not the only writers who aren’t as concerned about counting drafts as some others are. If you spend as much time thinking and writing about the story, the result is pretty much the same. I suspect that the instructor in the workshop I’m taking has mentioned it a few times to encourage some members to spend that additional time on their work. (a bit more on this in my reply to Gwen, below)

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | March 2, 2015, 5:56 AM
      • Yeah, I’m not a “number counter.” I just do what needs to get done to “get the job done”! :-] Will check out your Gwen reply….

        Posted by fpdorchak | March 3, 2015, 4:13 AM
  4. Hi Joe – I’ve always thought of a “draft” as you said above – the start of a new file, in which structural changes to the work take place. That, in my mind, is revision, and it usually comes after a period away from the work — weeks, or even months — which allows time for the necessary changes to percolate and gradually take shape. Like you, I’m always rereading, tweaking, making minor edits as I go, on any given draft. I’d like to know these authors’ definitions of “draft.” But the thing about writing is it’s so completely personal, everything from the work itself to the very process by which it comes to be. What works for one may not work for another.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | March 1, 2015, 4:29 AM
    • Hi Gwen,
      As I mentioned in my reply to Frank, above, I think some of this comes from my workshop instructor’s attempt to get students to understand the work that goes into a successful story. Ever since she mentioned it, I’ve been spot-checking submissions to our lit journal, by looking under “Properties” in the Word file. There you can see how long the file was open. This isn’t always accurate, since a writer may have created a new file for submitting, but sometimes when I get a story that’s clearly not ready for prime time, I can see a duration of just a few hours, as though the writer hasn’t spent much time revising. Other times I can see a significant amount of time was spent on it. This doesn’t really mean much, I know, but it’s encouraging to see other writers sweating their stories too.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | March 2, 2015, 6:06 AM
      • Sweating, indeed. One of my writing friends once told me a good story can take years to develop, and the longer I write fiction, the more I’m agreeing with that statement. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the inaugural edition of TLR, I know my writing isn’t up to the standards you and your colleagues are looking for. Lots more years of bad writing are ahead for me, but we need to write the bad stuff — again and again, draft after crappy draft — before we can get to the good stuff. Comforting to know there are others toiling through the same long process. Great post, as always.

        Posted by Gwen Stephens | March 2, 2015, 2:00 PM
  5. We are all so different in the way we go about writing, it’s hard to determine what is a whole draft. I tend to blather on for many pages and then go back to make changes in big chunks (sections or chapters). I have no idea how to count drafts anymore. Tom Perrotta says he does almost all editing and rewriting a novel as he goes along, and therefore his process seems, on the surface, very slow. William Styron wrote longhand on yellow legal pads, and he said he only wrote down the next sentence after he had completely written and revised it perfectly in his head.

    I remember when I first started writing, I got so anxious every time I read an author interview where they talked about their process. I always felt like I wasn’t doing it right, and man was that paralyzing.

    Posted by Teri | March 3, 2015, 9:18 AM
    • Ah, but there is no right way, and a writer with experience like you eventually understands that every writer has to make her own rules (and stick with them). Those habits of the famous writers can be an inspiration, but they can be a barrier to our own work sometimes. When I first heard of Egan’s 60 drafts (for a novel, no less), I panicked a bit, thinking I must be doing something wrong. But I realized that the way I write is my way, and my “drafts” include not only the time spent in front of the computer, but also the time spent working through details while walking Henry, or washing the dishes, or sitting in front of the TV. My mental drafts probably number in the dozens, and that’s good enough for me.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | March 3, 2015, 8:48 PM

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