Monday, November 7, 2011

How Many Drafts Does It Take To Get To The Query Stage?

photo credit
I was asked: How many revisions does a writer go through before she is ready to query? So for the answer I went to some trusted writer friends. Below are answers from those at all stages of the process, from querying to published, in no particular order. 

Can you tell I'm in the middle of revising something I thought was revised about 50 drafts ago??
In my experience, there are two main types of writers -- 1) the overly-optimistic, too excited, must rush-to-get-it-out-there, and 2) the esteem-challenged, what-if-someone-says-something-negative-about-my- baby, I can tweak two more words at least.  Knowing whether your draft is ready involves knowing which sick, demented writerly camp you fall into.  If you're the overly-optimistic (read naive), then you probably should hold onto your draft for several more rounds.  However, if even your least favorite critique partner is telling you enough is enough, then hold the epidural and shoot that baby out.

It depends on the book … and the level of experience of the writer. For my first book, which didn’t query agents and went straight to a small publisher, I did four drafts. For the MG SF story that I queried (and got lots of requests): six drafts. For the YA SF story I just self-published (but queried agents before that)? Five drafts. I expect to do at least 4 drafts for the sequel.

Here are my drafts:
1 - vomit draft - let it fly baby
2- Story arc pass - main story subplots - overall structure
3- MC & supporting character arcs - including character development & embellishment
4- grammar/punctuation pass & bad habit pass (adverbs/tense/sentence variety/word choice)
7 - Hard copy read - make corrections
8 - Kindle read - make corrections
9 - Including Beta notes pass
10 - Holistic read - wearing my audience hat
11 - Corrections from Holistic read

*Through all the passes I keep and ongoing notebook on the MS for "ah ha" moments. I will insert these in whatever draft I'm currently working on.

Well I'm on my 13th draft right now, but that's because I reworked my story goal and motivation. When I think back to my previous books, they've all been 13 + drafts. My approach to each book is different. I'm hoping one day to streamline the process, once I figure what works best for me. :D

Also, I send my ms out to beta readers in waves, and complete a few of drafts between each wave.

And just for additional info, I do outline first. The outline I wrote for my current WIP was written over a year ago. I've learned tons of things since then, which I wish I had known  a year ago. That would have resulted in fewer drafts. ;) 

I'll probably do at least two more drafts before I query since I'm still sending my ms out to a few more beta readers. Yes, I'll do anything to delay the joy of rejections.

Heather McCorkle:
I have a pretty extensive editing process that involves 5-8 revisions depending on the needs of the manuscript. Due to the increasingly competitive market my manuscripts have to really shine before I send them out.

My gut reaction is that four drafts is about right. The first draft is for yourself, to get everything down; the second draft is a quick-ish revision on your own again to make it ready for your critique group (ironically, I recommend Holly Lisle's one-pass revision for this); the third is a longer revision after receiving constructive feedback from your critique group; and the fourth is just a polish to make the prose shine.

And then, when you can't stand it any longer and you're absolutely certain your novel is ready to go out into the world, wait. Give it another week before you hit "send." Take a break. Go on a walk. Wait just a teensy bit longer, and give it fresh eyes for typos. It's tough to do, but the person reading it will thank you.

Julie Musil:
As many as it takes. I'm no expert on this stuff, but it seems to me that if we say ahead of time 2, 3, 10 drafts, then we're hurting ourselves. I think it's fair to do at least a couple of drafts before your critique partners or beta readers see it. Then revise again, and again, and again, until you read it through with barely any changes. I'd say that's the time to query.
Did you find an answer that you like? I think the idea here is that it's different for everyone. But the one thing we all have in common? Multiple drafts. Lots of revision. Because that's what it takes no matter how daunting it seems.

You can do it!


  1. Terrific! I think it's hard to count. What counts as a draft? Some big changes do but sometimes there are small tweaks that happen inbetween. I'd say when a new beta reader you trust doesn't come back with major issues - that you can see and agree with. And a gut feeling that comes with time. But even that isn't always accurate. :)

  2. OMG, I think I've gone through about 28 drafts on my first novel. My second is at draft five, but this draft takes the second 2/3 of the story out completely, changing the entire arc.

    The third one is on draft 4, but it's been completely rewritten TWICE now, once with a complete change in the main character, once with the change of POV (and, boy, is that tough).

    I'm in the revision camp, but I'm also just growing as a writer, finding my voice, and my drafts change a lot as a result.

  3. This is interesting. I feel like I've been through a million on my first. :)

  4. Susan S. nailed me with her number 2, but I absolutely Leslie's list! All the perceptions here are great. Thanks authors!! *waves at Stina, Heather, Julie, Susan Q, & of course, you, Lisa.* Off to discover the few I don't know. :)

  5. Some days it feels like I'm working on my trillionth version, like Susan Sipal. :D

  6. Def different for everyone (but thanks for including me! :)). I think Laura made an important point too - it depends what you call a "draft" - for me, that's where you go through every line of the MS for something (story, voice, craft), but I'll also do multiple quick passes for something in particular (a story arc). There's just plain a lot of work in it. ;)

  7. Wonderful round-up, Lisa! And thanks for including me. It was so funny that you caught me with this question when I was knee-deep in frustrations.

    But editing and revising are so extremely critical, as everyone says. It's a tough market, and the only way an agent or editor is going to see the brilliance of your work is if you truly take the time to make it shine.


  8. What Stina said: "I'll do anything to delay the joy of rejections." That about sums it up for me! This was a really valuable and timely post. Thank you!

  9. I've lost count of how many drafts I've gone through. Susan Sipal's post really hit home for me. I was of the naive camp, rushed to get my manuscript out there, even got so far as a partial request, but was rejected. When I went back through it, I knew I should have let it sit, so I did. Now I'm going through a whole re-working.
    Thanks for this post! It's really good to know there's more than one right way to get things done.

  10. Lisa, I cracked up when I saw the photo!! Ah, memories of Charms suckers.

    I love all these answers, and your summary is spot on. I'm impressed by each writer and their process. And Leslie's process? Dang! She's good.

  11. So true, especially Leslie's -- that seems to dovetail with my process. Also, my definition of draft might be a little different. I divide my printed copy into scenes and work on them after my second draft and so some of them can go through tons of passes, and others not as much, before I then cobble them all back together for the next _fully printed_ draft.

  12. Huh. This is really interesting! I feel like the definition of draft varies from person to person. Right now I'm revising using a checklist from James Scott Bell's Revision & Self Editing. When I've finished his checklist, I'll consider that my second draft. Then I'm sending it to beta readers and will start draft 3. Leslie considers some of the checklist tasks (character development) to be its own draft. So maybe technically I'm not on draft 2 anymore? Who knows! All I know is that I won't query until I hear from my beta readers and critique partners that it's ready. :)

  13. According to your photo up top, 3. (I believe that was the answer from the commercial. Where you even born when that came out?)

    But more to the point, simply "enough". It is your writing journey. You'll know when you arrive at the destination called "Query". Maybe you'll get off the writing train, pause for lunch and a submission, realize you got off too early, and get back on board.

    Me, I'm riding the "City of New Orleans" for a while longer.

  14. It's really all over the place, isn't it? I like the Vomit Draft myself. That one's easy to call. DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT QUERYING ME, PUSSY CAT.

  15. The answer for me is also 'as many as it takes'.

    If there are multiple answers, then "the one that involves the most amount of work" is the right answer.

  16. I lose count of how many drafts I come up with. I agree with those who say as many as it takes. Even when I get giddy at the possibility of being done, I always go through my manuscripts one more time (and another, and another) finding mistakes until a voice tells me that it's ready for others to read.

  17. Love this post, and I love Leslie's process. (Hi Leslie--waving madly) Wish I was that systematic, but I don't catch everything in a logical series of drafts. I suspect it varies from book to book, too, depending on concept and the nature of the story.

    Here's my one bit of epiphany to add to this though. Instead of asking myself "what do I need to fix" on this draft, I've discovered I need to ask "what can I deepen or twist in this draft to make the story/characters/prose really pop." Unfortunately, that's a recent discovery. What can I say? I too am a work in progress.


  18. Waving back, Martina. Love seeing everyone's process. Thanks, Lisa. We have a saying in my classroom for math problems - "Don't panic, be systematic." Looks like that phrase snuck into my writer's hat as well.

  19. I love hearing different writer's perspectives on this. I think it takes as long as it takes-- I've done anywhere from 4 to 10 drafts for the things I've written. Whenever I think I'm done, I send it to someone to read. Then I usually find more stuff to change. When it starts coming back with more tweaks and fewer "big" changes, I know I'm close to ready.

  20. I loved reading these responses. Thanks for including me!

    This cracked me up: "Knowing whether your draft is ready involves knowing which sick, demented writerly camp you fall into." So true.

    Also, I found Leslie and Julie's thoughts to be particularly astute :)

  21. Ha ha loved this! For me, every manuscript is different and it depends on the revisions (which is a circular kind of logic, but oh well).

  22. Different strokes for different folks. The better I get at writing, the fewer drafts I need.

  23. Thank you for getting some real feedback from writers! I'm on round 6 of my current wip with at least 2 more to go.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  24. Wonderful advice. I find as I get better at my writing the better my first draft is. I still like to do several revisions before I query. Also, I like my manuscripts to be near perfect before I have other reads. I'd rather them concentrate on the story and point out what I missed because my eyes went cross. <3

  25. Oh yes--multiple drafts and lots of revisions.
    This is a wonderful post! Each writer had something interesting and valuable to contribute. For me, writing is all about revising, so I enjoy reading how others work at it.

  26. Exactly! We all do multiple revisions, maybe in different order or something, but in the end the first drafts always suck!
    That's why I love this saying:
    The wastebasket is the writer's best friend!!

  27. I think the number of drafts you need depends on the shape your first draft shows up in -- some of mine need more work than others. Usually I've got a first draft, then two to three passes after that -- I think there's a real danger in overworking a story, though it can be hard to tell where to stop!

  28. Each of the answers has some kernel of truth that speaks to me.

    If you'd asked the old me, the answer would have been, "One--it's perfect just as it is, baby!"

    I've gained a little wisdom since. I'd say I did a dozen drafts of TMD, with the first couple much heavier than the latter ones.

    Since I've still barely started editing the current book, I can't venture a guess as to how many it will take. My hope is my experiences the first time around will cut a few revisions off, but we'll see!

  29. I LOVE this post and all posts like this. And I love Sarah Skilton. And every one else's advice too.

  30. Ack. This revising process seems to take forever. I have no idea how long it'll take before I see my first rejection letter, let alone get published. My non-writer friends ask me if I've starting sending my story to publishers yet. First, I need to find a beta-reader to send it to.
    Then I think of certain popular authors who publish a book every year or two which seems to be evidence that eventually after enough practice and learning and experience, stories won't take quite so many drafts and read-throughs anymore. But that first step(or staircase) is a doozy.