I like arbitrary guidelines when it comes to writing. Saying something like, “I have to delete 20,000 words,” or “I have to go through five drafts” takes off the pressure of determining if it’s ready until after I’ve already familiarized myself with the book thoroughly. I give them to myself all of the time, so when someone decides that they have to go through a certain number, especially having written for a long time, I consider it a good move.
Yet while I don’t criticize people for giving themselves a specific amount of drafts they must do (as long as they are aware and willing to admit when they’ve started to overwork something), I do think that this obsession and importance on versions is highly overused.
I tell the little fable about my three feedbackers at a writer’s conference.
The first was an agent who said to me that while I could use a little more world-building, she loved my writing style and told me to send a letter to her coworker who represented the genre. “You can use my name,” she said.
The second was a writer who said that, though she would like to understand the setting better, she thought I was a competent writer and felt safe in my hands.
The third told me it as obviously a first draft.
“No,” I said simply.
“Is it finished? Yes? It’s your first book then. Your first science book then. Well, you don’t read the genre…” She spent probably seven minutes out of my little time with her running through her options, all the while, I was like, “Does this matter?”
If it reads like a first draft to you then it’s irrelevant if it actually is or not. End of story.
While living in L.A. several years ago, I produced a play that I wrote and directed. (Some people have their qualms against this hubris, but if you’ve ever tried to hire a responsible director for cheap, you know that it’s not always about ego.)
The lead actress approached me a day before the performance, claiming that I should have gone through more drafts. She hadn’t learned her lines, and she suggested it was because they didn’t make any sense. Now, this could have been true, but she obviously had a reason outside of maintaining high standards for the criticism.
I gave her no sympathy, saying, “It’s gone through five drafts. What confuses you?”
Upon hearing this, her tune changed. “Well, you should have told me what they meant!”
“I didn’t know you didn’t understand them,” I told her. “You’re very good at acting when you don’t know what you’re talking about. It was your job as an actress to make sure you knew what you were saying. If you really do feel that way, may I ask why you’re bringing it up now instead of while we were rehearsing them?”
She didn’t have an answer for that, so I basically told her tough shit, too late, go learn your lines.
What annoyed me most about that whole discussion, however, was how “it’s gone through five drafts,” was a legitimate argument. She seemed convinced that she was wrong, when, if someone had said that to me, I would have responded, “Then you should have done another one!”
Let’s disregard the fact that I could have been lying (I was not), but what a “draft” is isn’t well defined. By five drafts I could literally mean I changed five words. And even if it was the truth that I went through detailed, painful edits, if it didn’t make sense to her, it didn’t make sense. Why does the number matter? Of course, it’s likely that she knew she was in the wrong already and the only reason she shut down was because she knew her arguments were shaky, but it’s not like it was uncommon.
In a class called Page to Stage in my college, we would read scripts and go to theatre shows in Los Angeles to see them performed. One of these was a play written specifically for the theatre, which all but one student hated.
I said that it seemed the writer came up with a premise, didn’t know where to go with it, kept writing until it had run long enough, and then quickly ended it.
My professor said, “It has gone through twelve edits.”
While people constantly claim that first drafts are always garbage, really having gone through so many drafts doesn’t mean it’s good, and sometimes even worse. No, I don’t agree all first drafts are terrible (though they’re bound to have at least a few mistakes the author would want to fix), but not only that, sometimes the first draft is better than the twelfth. Or the sixth is, or the third.
Anne Hathaway insisted on doing a huge number of takes (I heard 30) for her song in Les Miserables; they ended up using the fourth one.
If writing well was just about editing a lot, publishing would be a lot easier. “I want to see twelve drafts of this, stat!” But doing a good draft is about fixing errors, considering results, and judging the manuscript on quality, not work ethic. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a first draft or a millionth, what matters is does it work?
Now, of course it’s easier to criticize a person’s work ethic than their creative results, and many of us—myself included—want credit for all of the time we’ve spent writing, but it’s a continuing conversation that just needs to die down. How many drafts I’ve gone through should not change your opinion of the story. It does though, and it is a clear piece of evidence towards how “experienced” people’s choices are construed differently than the same choice by an amateur. Every time someone starts to focus on how many drafts you make, use it to consider how much trust is dependent on things outside of how you write, and note how much easier it is to judge a writer by numbers than by abstract quality. Then inform them it’s none of their business how many drafts you went through and get over it.