Asking ‘How many drafts should you write for a novel?’ is kind of like asking ‘How long is a piece of string?’.
Every writer has a process that works for them. Some swear by three drafts; others proclaim 10 to be the magic number. But the truth is, there is no ‘magic number’.
As you develop your own process, consider the genre you’re writing in, your writing experience, and your reason behind why you want to write a novel.
A fantasy writer will go through more drafts than someone who is writing a memoir, because they are creating worlds entirely out of their own imagination.
If you’re a new writer, no matter your genre, you may get stuck rewriting your first draft over and over and never finish the story.
Are you writing a novel to start a career, or for a fun hobby? Perhaps you are writing a story for your children to read one day. All are good reasons – and all may involve a different drafting process.
If you’re writing only for yourself, you may not need to engage a professional editor. But if you want a career as an author, hiring a professional editor for a manuscript assessment can be a necessary part of the drafting process.
With all this mind, there are generally four drafting steps to write a novel. Within each stage, writers may go through two or three separate drafts, sometimes more.
Here’s how to follow these four stages to make your novel the best it can be.
1. Writing the first draft
Like throwing paint at a wall, accept you won’t have total control over your novel’s first draft. It is impossible to know how the paint will splatter against the wall and what shapes it will turn into.
Similarly, the characters may take on a life of their own; the plot will transform. That’s the artistic beauty of writing a novel. You won’t know everything at the beginning. The point is to just sit in a chair and write, write, write.
Put the inner critic on mute during this stage. Don’t read back over your writing and rewrite scenes. Save all that for the second draft.
Remember, the point of the first draft is to get the story out of your head and on paper. Don’t be hard on yourself. Let the story unfold naturally.
Start at the beginning and don’t stop until you get to the end. If your character throws a spanner in the works, make a note of it and keep writing.
If you need to jump on the internet for ‘research’, don’t. Just make a note of the aspect that needs further detail and keep going.
Your first draft will be messy, like a paint-splattered wall. It won’t be perfect and ready for publication right way.
The first draft process can take anywhere from two weeks to one year, depending on how much time you’ve set aside to write, how long your novel is, and how fast you write.
If you ask Stephen King, this process should take no longer than three months – but he’s a full-time author who’s been in the game for over 40 years.
For a 75,000-word novel, you’d have to write 25,000 words a month or 6,250 words a week. If this sounds unattainable, set a goal to finish your first draft in six months, instead of three.
There’s no rule for how long this process should take. Enjoy the journey and set realistic goals that work for you and your lifestyle.
2. Second draft magic
The second draft is where the story really grows its wings.
Before you dive headfirst into the second draft, let your first draft breathe for a few days, or a few weeks. You’ve created something magical and it’s important to let it (and yourself) rest.
Congratulations! You’ve written a first draft. Does it need a lot of work? Most likely, and that’s OK! Feel proud that you’ve taken an idea and transformed it into an actual story.
So, what now? It’s time for a story and character edit.
This is the most time-consuming draft – but don’t worry, it’s also the most exciting! The second draft is where you take your first draft and knead it into dough fit for baking.
Here’s an example of how to approach your second draft:
1. Write a sentence summarising each scene.
This is great if you have plot holes and don’t know how to fill them. It can also reveal any scenes that don’t drive the story forward. (Save those scenes for your diehard fans at a future date.)
Check: does everything happen for a reason? Remember that novels aren’t like real life. If you’re writing fiction, everything the characters do or say should happen for a reason.
2. Print your draft out and read on paper.
This is a good way to spot errors you might have missed on the screen. Make your edits with a pen and then update your digital copy.
Some writers like to rewrite entire scenes after editing a hard copy. Do what works for you.
3. Read your story through with the eyes of a reader.
Focus on each character’s POV. Does each character have a unique voice? Are they fully-fledged, three-dimensional creations? Or boring, flat, stereotypical characters?
Depending on how much time you have to focus on the second draft, this process can take anywhere from three months to a year. Sometimes longer!
3. Quick third draft
Are the tenses flipping from past to present? Are you using too many adverbs? Do you have pet words or phrases that crop up repetitively?
Don’t focus too much on fixing every little grammatical or spelling error. Just do your best to make your story easier to read for the fourth draft stage.
4. Fourth draft: fresh eyes
Kiss your newest creation goodbye for now and hand it over to somebody else for a week or so. This can be a family member, friend, or beta reader.
Just make sure it’s somebody you can trust to give you constructive feedback. While ‘Wow, I love it’ is a great confidence-booster, it’s not going to help you make your novel the best it can be.
You also have the option to send your novel to a professional editor for feedback. You can do this after or instead of sending it to friends or beta readers. It’s up to you to decide.
Keep in mind that you may need to do an entirely new draft to incorporate the feedback you receive.
There is no hard and fast rule on how many drafts you should write for a novel. The above four-draft process is a great way to get started and discover what works for you.
Within each stage, particularly draft two, you may need to write several drafts. It takes time, but if you are willing to put in the work, it will show in the quality of your manuscript.