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.