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Background: I've been writing fan fiction for five years now. I began when I didn't have a clue what I was doing, so my methods have evolved during those years. By now I have a solid process that I follow, and I feel I have a good grasp on what I'm doing. There is one small detail that has been bothering me for some time now though:

On this site and off, I've heard writers everywhere refer to first, second, third, and sometimes even fourth or fifth drafts. You write your story out as the first draft, wait a while, start over with the second draft, and so on. It's a solid principle that I try to use. I say 'try' because, to this day, I have never written a second draft. Everything I have ever written, every piece of fan fiction, I have written only one draft of. I've done editing for sure, but I've never rewritten the whole thing. The most I've done is maybe rewrite half of a chapter a few times.

Most people say that your first draft is usually terrible. Some even go so far as to say that it has little use beyond getting your idea down. Most agree that you largely dispose of your first draft and simply start over. (These observations are based on what I've heard.) Here's the problem though: starting even with my very first fan fiction, my ratings have consistently been high. My readers have liked what I wrote. Even to me, my writing hasn't looked like the disorganized mess I think a first draft is supposed to be.

I think I know what is going on. As I mentioned above, I have a solid process that I follow. That process is more for outlining and development than writing. I go through every aspect of the fiction that I need (character, plot, stakes, etc.) in detail. I work out exactly what I need, how I'll get it, and where it will be. In fact, by the time I get to the plot section, the fiction has already begun to take shape just from all the other parts I know it will need to have. By the time I'm done with my process and ready to begin the first draft, my fiction is detailed down to the individual scenes. Not much editing of the outline takes place; I generally leave that up to when I am writing, as I feel is necessary. Sometimes, during writing, I change, delete, or add a few scenes to make it work, and I often have to detail things better than I have in the outline, but for the most part, my outline remains in the same general shape as when I started. The closest I've ever come to writing a second draft is scraping chapter one several times in quick succession until I come up with the right opening.

I think because my outlining and development is so detailed, it is taking the place of the first and possibly even the second draft. Could this be? I'm hesitant to accept this, because multiple drafts seems like one of those universal things that all writers go through, with very little exception.

Question: Is my detailed outlining and development taking the place of first and possibly second drafts?

  • The real question is: how do you define "draft"? Is it "rewriting the entire book from scratch"? Is it "changing X% of the words in the book"? Is it "changing a significant plot arc"? Is it "going through from beginning to end and editing all over the place"? – Lauren Ipsum Dec 13 '15 at 13:50
  • I define a draft based only on what I've heard, since I've never really written one. As I understand it, a draft (or at least the second one) is a rewriting of nearly the entire novel, maybe with a few select parts kept and heavily edited. Subsequent drafts seem to have less and less editing. – Thomas Myron Dec 13 '15 at 20:42
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    Based on what I've seen as an editor, the second draft doesn't have to be "an entire rewriting of the novel." It might be, but that's not part of the definition. To me, a draft is "one significant pass from beginning to end, which is then handed off to other eyes for review." A pass may have multiple rounds (that is, you go through once for dialogue, once for repeated words, once to add scenery detail), but when you give it to your editor or beta, that's A Draft. – Lauren Ipsum Dec 13 '15 at 20:53
  • You said that you write a lot and people like what you write and you never use more than one draft, yet you also say that writing many drafts is a "solid principle" -but based on what? Why is it a solid principle? You don't follow it and you are successful, that's your answer right there. I also write a lot and people like what I write and I never do second drafts, just editing on the first. I don't spend a lot of time on outlines either, but it works for me, so I'd say it depends on how you work and for us, doing minor tweaks to a first draft IS a solid principle. – JBiggs Aug 3 '17 at 17:19
  • I refer to it as a solid principle because I believe it is a solid principle. It seems to be a fairly well-established practice which the majority of writers use. Therefore I would say it is a solid principle. – Thomas Myron Aug 3 '17 at 17:36
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The "first draft" and extensive re-writing you alluded to is often what "pantsers" - people who write by the seat of their pants, without outlines, produce. Those aren't what I would really call a first draft, since they can be unstructured messes or streams of consciousness (though they can sometimes be good). They then take that material and structure it, producing their "second draft" - which is the first real clean draft. The important distinction is that the "first draft" of a pantser is designed to produce material which is intended to be restructured and rewritten.

"Plotters", use outlines, play around with arcs and structure before writing, to whatever level of detail is needed. This is done in a word processor, or with a writing tool like Scrivener. They then write their stories, producing a real "first draft." Their first draft is designed to be 80% similar to the final story, with plenty of detail to add and content revisions, but with relatively minimal developmental/structural edits.

It's critical to understand the two processes clearly, because people offering writing advice often assume you do it their way. The flow is either:

Write, restructure, re-write, edit (pantsers)

or

Outline, plan scenes, (plan beats,) write, edit (plotters)

Plotters must do more work up-front, but save on time at the back, as they restructure outlines and scene lists, not written chapters that must retain continuity. They can spot arcs dragging and unresolved issues at the beginning. They are also much less likely to throw away pages and pages of text.

Plotting can save a lot of grief, but a lot of people write the pantser way either because their creative process just doesn't work with outlines, it fits the stereotype of a writer, or they haven't been exposed to efficient outlining (there are bad ways out there).

So in short, no, your outline isn't taking the place of a first draft. Their "first draft" is taking the place of an outline.

  • An excellent distinction, thank you. I found this very helpful. I am most definitely a plotter (though oddly, I've produced some of my better writing by 'pantsing' it). – Thomas Myron Dec 13 '15 at 7:26
  • This is very interesting. I wondered why my first drafts looked like stream of consciousness word sketches, when other writer's first drafts seemed more complete. – superluminary Dec 14 '15 at 13:37
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Well, this is a tough question. You've provided a lot of background and it's still a tough question to answer.

I'm tempted to say yes and no, at the same time. In fact, I'm gonna stick my neck out there and just say it: yes and no.

Yes, your highly detailed outline is essentially a first draft. But it's also not. Many authors craft extensive, highly-detailed outlines like you've mentioned, though most that I know of would still edit successive drafts (and then call them 2nd draft, 3rd draft, etc). James Ellroy, in this excellent Paris Review interview, mentions that a 400-page outline took him eight months to write. And the interviewer replies, "Your outlines resemble first drafts. Is that how you think of them?" And Ellroy dodges the question...

And then there's the No...

No, your outline isn't really taking the place of a first draft, since the first readable product is by definition a first draft. Just because readers like a work doesn't mean it was necessarily edited to completion. I've read many works-in-progress and even liked some of them: if the author asks for feedback, I give it to them, which leads to revisions and revisions and revisions. If the author just wants to know if I liked the piece, a yes or no answer is all they get, and that does them very little good in the long run.

In my opinion, the editing process you described in your background section is essentially 2nd drafting. One of my novels is currently in its 8th draft. However, several chapters are very similar to how they were first written and their relative purity doesn't negate the second draftiness (or eighth in this case) of the book's present state. Those chapters worked back then and they still work now.

  • I guess I'm just hesitant to tackle a real novel without a multitude of drafts, since it seems like everyone else treats it as a mandatory part of the process. I want to be sure I can 'skip' it before I do. – Thomas Myron Dec 13 '15 at 2:57
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Your readers will only read the "final" draft. They will neither know nor care whether the finished version that they have in their hands is the first draft, or the fiftieth. That being the case, there is no requirement for any given number of drafts - either as a minimum or a maximum.

The purpose of multiple drafts (for those who choose to write multiple drafts) is to refine and improve the story until the author - and perhaps their editor and publisher - consider it "done". There is no rule that says a story must have more than one draft to be "done". There is certainly no rule that a first draft should be a "disorganised mess". It might be. It might not be. It is perfectly possible to write the first draft of a story and consider that enough; the story is "done". It is also perfectly possible to write a first draft and find that it is a disorganised mess, which needs refining and improving in second and subsequent drafts. The story is the thing - not the number of drafts.

In your case, it sounds as though your process of planning and structuring before writing the story is working for you (according to you, and your readers?). If that is the case, it sounds very much to me like there is no problem here. There is no requirement for a first draft that gets thrown away in favour of a second draft, so your outlining doesn't need to "take the place" of anything. But, it sounds like your outlining is useful to you to get the story into a good state, where others may need (or choose to have) multiple drafts to reach a similar point. This sounds like a success to me!

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I have had an accordion list of revision items that varies from 4 to 12 on any given day. Each pass I do one thing (one pass was checking for consistency of character voice, nothing else.)

You have a different process.

Today I found a list of items that is useful to my process and may be generally useful. The link is:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/quora/2014/12/09/writing_fiction_what_skills_make_a_writer_s_work_better.html

And some of the items on the list are:

  1. Unclear speaker attribution
  2. Using clichés and hackneyed phrases (e.g. "knife through butter").
  3. Run-on sentences
  4. Too many adverbs and weak verbs

etc.

If you are not happy with your writing (it sounds like you are) see the link. It is definitely a good resource for me.

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