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Writing in Drafts

A marble masterpiece - worth the work (Courtesy PinkMoose on Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Back in 2008, I was talking my good friend Julie into participating in National Novel Writing Month, and she expressed some concern that her writing wouldn’t be good enough. I thought about it for a moment, trying to figure out how to encourage her enough that she would go ahead with it, and at the same time admit that, y’know, her writing really wouldn’t be good enough. No point in setting the bar impossibly high, right?

I’m a terribly clever guy. I told it to her like this:

Writing a good novel is a lot like carving a beautiful statue from marble. You want your finished product to be a perfect, glorious testament to your skill as an artist, but that finished product is the end result of a long and complicated process. You don’t start out by getting the detail on the face, or the delicate fold of a robe. You don’t even start out with the broad strokes. The first step in carving an exquisite statue is digging a giant, shapeless hunk of rock out of the ground.

It’s the same with writing a novel, but not in the way you think. You might imagine the story idea is the shapeless hunk of rock. Or possibly really getting to know your protagonist. Or maybe it’s the plot…once you’ve nailed down the plot, you’re ready to get started making your statue. With a novel, though, you don’t even start working on it until you’ve got a rough draft.

That’s right. A finished novel is your starting spot. It’s liberating, if you look at it in the right way (and that’s the whole point of National Novel Writing Month — teaching people to look at it in the right way). It’s also an astonishingly brilliant metaphor, and I should win awards just for coming up with it.

Two days later I read one of the NaNoWriMo pep talk emails that had gone neglected in my inbox for a week or so, by Nancy Etchemendy, and it made precisely the same point. Bah! I could write a very angry blog post on the unbelievably original things you come up with, that get published by somebody else the next day.

That’s not what this one is about, though. This one is about your hunk of marble. This one is about stonecarving.


I could write a whole book about prewriting — the benefits of pulling some of your thoughts and ideas together, the value of getting to know your characters and guessing at your plot before you begin writing it.

Prewriting, for most people, starts with an idea. That idea might be a compelling character, or a stark new fantasy world. It might be a plot twist, or just a particularly intriguing scene. Maybe it’s a glimpse of a dream, or a snippet of an overheard conversation. Sometimes it’s even a plot — a whole storyline, with all the twists and turns — but just an idea.

Everyone’s got a story idea. Everyone. Interview all the people you know — all the people who don’t read, all the people who prefer the movie version to the book, all the people who can’t be bothered to write a status update, let alone a blog post — and I’d be willing to bet nearly every one of them has a story idea. I’d wager the ones who claim they don’t are just too shy to admit it.

Story ideas aren’t books, though. They’re not even the beginnings of books. They’re just thinking about maybe writing a book someday. I’ve got some specific advice for formalizing your ideas, for capturing your elusive prewriting thoughts and preserving them in silicon, but you haven’t really started writing a book until you’ve gotten from the dark and stormy night all the way to “The End.”

The First Draft, and the Rough Draft

Carlos caught me in chat the other day, and asked, “What do you call the version of a written work that you send off to your editor? After rough draft, before final draft.” It took me most of ten minutes to answer that question.

The problem we kept running into (for me, anyway) was that he wasn’t allowing nearly enough steps in the process of imperfection. Writing a novel is a lifetime spent in the state of imperfection. We’ve got dozens of names for all the different types of you’re-not-done-working-on-it-yet, and just the one for the finished product.

It’s not set in stone anywhere, the terms we use, but I ultimately told him that the purpose of editors was to turn drafts into manuscripts, so you’re already to “final draft” before you ever send anything off.

On the way there, though, you’ve got the first draft — that shapeless hunk of stone you threw together over the space of a month, or a year, or the better part of a decade. Once you’ve got that done, you’re ready to get to work. You start with a read-through, during which you evaluate the block you’ve got to work with, and decide what shape your finished work is going to end up in. You do a rewrite, some big carving with a heavy chisel as you evaluate your characters and rearrange your plot until, overall, your draft looks like the story you had in mind by the time you got finished writing.

The Draft Manuscript

Even then, you’re not done. You refine your story further with revision and edits, honing in on the fine detail of your statue. In your novel, these details are things like symbolism and foreshadowing, dynamic dialogue and poetic exposition. This is where your voice shines through, where your clever turns of phrase start to delight readers and the whole book becomes a true representation of your genius.

This is what you dream of making, really, in those lonely days at the end of October. This is what you worry you’re not really cut out for. This is what you think of as a novel. Not necessarily the sort of thing you’ll find wrapped in a perfect binding on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, but your novel. Your manuscript.

No one writes these in November, though. No one writes these into a New Document in Microsoft Word. Manuscripts comes from final drafts, and final drafts come from rough drafts, and rough drafts from come from first drafts. It’s a remarkable process, and a grueling effort, and one of the noblest pursuits of mankind.

This noble accomplishment, this wondrous apex of your individual writing prowess, is your draft manuscript. In other words, this is the thing countless editors and agents are going to glance at, and then politely but firmly issue your rejection.

The Finished Manuscript

The finished manuscript is something different altogether. It’s the product of multiple reviews by multiple readers and editors. It’s polished to a sheen. It’s perfect. It’s complete.

That’s worth striving for, it’s an amazing destination, but you can’t possibly get there until you understand all the stops along the way. I’ve heard far too many people give up because they’re incapable of sitting down and dashing off a finished manuscript, and seen some really great first drafts abandoned because they weren’t already beautiful.

Learn the process. Learn the craft. Your draft can be astonishing at every step along the way, as long as you know what to expect of it, what to look for…and exactly what you need to do to keep improving.

Photo credit PinkMoose.

5 Responses to “Writing in Drafts”

  1. I have to say, now that I have completed one part of the process, I am really excited to get into the nitty gritty, refining part.

  2. Carlos Velez says:

    This post is awesome. I feel like I can take on anything now. It fit in quite nicely with the guest post I was writing, so I included it as a link in part 1, and I sent it off tonight.

    This process of pre-writing is really kind of intense. Seeing the evolution of a thought into a finished product is an amazing thing. True artistry. Thanks for all you help with it.

  3. Aaron Pogue says:

    Refining a rough draft into a polished manuscript is a lot of work, but it can be a fascinating experience. Everyone I’ve discussed it with agrees that the revision process feels completely different from the writing process. In other words, for the first time writer, it’s another totally new experience.

    It’s also a pleasant change of pace. We spend so much of our creative and emotional energy creating new material (that we have to keep reminding ourselves isn’t going to be all that great), so it can be refreshing to switch into a more analytical and aesthetic mode for the rewrite.

    Thanks for the link! I submitted this article as a guest post at, too, because I felt like it had a lot of useful stuff to say.

    It’s interesting the parallel between what I’m saying about rough drafts and what you’re saying about personal development — with both of us focusing on the need to establish a realistic starting point and then focus on making it better.

    It’s just like you’re always saying, “Direction, not perfection.”

  4. Carlos Velez says:

    It is interesting! You can learn about life in so many ways. It’s making me re-evaluate my approach to my writing a bit, and mixing in lighter material more than I have so far, like the Direction , Not Perfection post from today…light for me anyway.

    Also, it looks like my post was accepted. Dave asked me for a head shot and a short bio…woo hoo!

  5. Ben says:

    Thank you so much! I am planning to write a novel once school ends and now the task seems much more artsy and less worky, THNX!