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"By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this." — Roald Dahl

Well, I am not quite this bad but it does have me wondering about how many times a novel is generally rewritten until it is suitable for submitting. This author even has a formula:

  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)

...

  1. Hard copy read - make corrections
  2. Kindle read - make corrections

OUT TO BETAS

  1. Including Beta notes pass
  2. Holistic read - wearing my audience hat
  3. Corrections from Holistic read

QUERY TIME

But another writer cautions:

Eventually, redrafting will just spoil the novel - there is a danger that the story you set out to write ends up so ‘surgically’ enhanced that it no longer resembles the original story – the intrinsic core of the story has been lost.

There are entire blogs dedicated to this question. Frankly, dozens of times seems overdone. Perfect isn't feasible unless you are this blogger.

But dozens isn't practical, especially given my advanced age. Aside from as many as it takes to find a publisher, does any one know the MEAN number of drafts for a novel?

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    Arguably the 11-point list you give as an example only has two re-writes. Authors I know don't consider corrections to be a "rewrite" of the novel, although there might well be rewrites of paragraphs. And the thing about computers is that you can rapidly generate 20 drafts just by fixing 20 typos found by your "beta readers", one at a time as the emails come in, which in times past would be found by a proofreader and fixed in a single new draft. That got published. So don't worry too much about measuring and comparing. – Steve Jessop Jan 24 '17 at 22:47
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    I don't consider edits as rewrites. I consider rewriting and deleting whole sections as rewrites. My second draft is half the size of the first and I still need to edit it by ADDING back more detail. I think writing is like oil painting, if you mess up an area you remove it and do it again, hopefully improving the work with the changes. – Richard Stanzak Jan 24 '17 at 22:51
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    I think you'll find so many opinions on this topic by writers who aren't you that it's going to boil down to "as many as it takes" – corsiKa Jan 25 '17 at 2:32
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There really is no general answer to this.

There are writers who publish their first drafts and make a lot of money with high volume output, while others polish their books endlessly and achieve high literary fame. Then there are writers who do either and manage neither.

Famous examples for heavy rewriting include Leo Tolstoy, who rewrote the whole of War and Peace seven times, Robert Musil who worked on The Man Without Qualities for twenty-one years and left it unfinished when he died, and Ernest Hemingway, who wrote 47 different endings for A Farewell in Arms.

An example for high output first drafts is Elle Casey. Research her, its interesting. She publishes about one novel per month, sometimes two. She also blogs heavily about her process, and I have learned a lot from her, although I don't (yet) emulate her.

What you must do, depends on what kind of person you are and what goals you have. You will find your ideal process through experimentation and self-reflection. Are you happy with self-publishing the verbal ejaculate of your imagination? Or do you need the New York Review of Books to discuss your work of art? Can you manage one book per month? That seems like a lot, but can you manage even one single complete rewrite?!? I find it almost unbearably difficult. Try both for yourself and find out.

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    "Then there are writers who do either and manage neither." I like that, I write because I like my story and the characters. I decided perfection is the enemy of the good, therefore I strive for good. It's actually fun to see incremental improvements in my technique while developing my own voice. Writing is a great hobby, few fisherman can catch a fish on their first cast that will make them famous, Cards are the same, not many are able to draw a flush with the first hand. Writing is not only fun but offers hope that with enough patience and practice we can produce a work of art with value. – Richard Stanzak Jan 24 '17 at 21:25
  • I thought, but I could easily be wrong, that Hemingway re-wrote it 39 times and when asked why said: 'I couldn't get the words right.'. Also, thank you for the reference to Elle Casey. – S. Mitchell Jan 24 '17 at 21:47
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    @S.Mitchell Hemingway said 39, but 47 have been found and published: nytimes.com/2012/07/05/books/… – user5645 Jan 24 '17 at 21:58
  • That is a good attitude, @RichardStanzak. – user5645 Jan 24 '17 at 22:01
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I don't think there can be an answer for this. I don't think you can even have an answer for a given writer. Mercedes Lackey rewrote her first trilogy seventeen times, but now she churns out books every year or so. (whether they are any good is a different question.) Barbara Cartland wrote over 700 books in her lifetime, Isaac Asimov over 500 in his, and George R.R. Martin has been struggling with Winds of Winter since the Truman administration.

A first book or series is going to go through many cycles. Once you get better at writing and editing, and particularly if you're writing a series with familiar characters, you will likely go much faster and need fewer rounds. You can track your own work, but I think it should be only for your own benchmarking purposes. The book is done when it's done, and not before.

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    Thank you, I am finding it is easier now I understand my own story and its characters. I wrote the first draft just to prove I could, I read it and the blogger above is correct to call it a vomit draft. Yet, I could make out the bones of something I imagined my book could become. I now look forward to writing on my series so I guess that means I am a happy writer. – Richard Stanzak Jan 24 '17 at 21:06
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There is not one answer, as others have said. But I would suggest the following:

  1. How many rewrites it takes to make a competent writer is a very different question from how many rewrites it takes for a competent writer to write a new book. Writing is a difficult craft and you should expect to have to do a lot of rewriting before you get good at it. That might mean rewriting the first book 20 times before you are good enough to make it good, or it could mean rewriting four books 5 times each before the fourth one is good.

  2. You should rewrite if you can see something wrong with a book and a way to make it better. Once you can't make it better, give it to someone else to read and listen to what they tell you is wrong with it (but not how they tell you to fix it). If you can now see what is wrong with it and a way to fix it, repeat the process. Once you can't see how to make it better, no matter what your beta readers say (good or bad), submit it. Or, if you still feel it is not good enough to submit, but can't tell how to make it better, stick it in a drawer and take it out next year.

  3. A book can fail at multiple levels. Story problems cannot be fixed by fiddling with the prose. In fact, fiddling with the prose seldom fixes anything (which is why you should ignore all the suggestions from your beta readers). Good storytelling is about how the arc of the story works out and whether it maintains tension and provides a satisfying release. It is about how you set up the reader's expectations and how you pay off those expectations. Some writers spend countless rewrites trying to fix failures of tension or excitement with more and more overwrought prose when the real problem is that the events are simply not set up properly to create tension or excitement. Recasting the story is usually what makes a book work, no rewriting the prose.

-2

If you are in writing to make money, it doesn't pay to rewrite. If you rewrite half as much you can output twice as many books per unit of time.

Now, some people will play the "quality" card. But quality of writing comes from talent, not from rewriting. Iron won't become steel no matter how much you pound at it.

The only time it makes rational sense to rewrite is if your work derailed from your original idea halfway through and you want to rewrite the first act to match the second and third acts. In this case, you can minimize waste by keeping the discarded half so you can write an appropriate ending later and release another book.

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    "But quality of writing comes from talent, not from rewriting." This is not true. Talent needs polish. Even Cartland and Asimov had editors. I have seen writing improve from one draft to the next as plot holes are fixed, phrases are fine-tuned, and characters are developed. You may rewrite more or less depending on your talent and your skill, but nobody writes so perfectly on the first shot that they don't need any editing, or rewriting. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 25 '17 at 1:50
  • I agree, I can even tell with my own writing. The more I practice the less I suck. – Richard Stanzak Jan 25 '17 at 2:03
  • @LaurenIpsum I didn't say you shouldn't edit. But "rewriting" implies something more drastic than just editing. And while everyone gets better with more practice, that's no reason to throw out already-written content. You can never ship if you insist on rewriting everything to your latest standard (which keeps getting higher). – DepressedDaniel Jan 25 '17 at 2:35
  • @DepressedDaniel: To add another perspective, I personally find rewriting old stuff useful for working on my craft. The reason I rewrite is not because I don't have any talent whatsoever – the talent I do have, however, is mostly related to scene-level stuff like prose, conveying character through dialogue etc. However, I suck at more large-scale writing skills, like whole-story plotting, laying the groundwork for a satisfying ending etc. Rewriting entire plots helps me hone those skills so that I will (fingers crossed) cease to suck at them. It's not a practice to be dismissed wholesale. – manyaceist Jan 25 '17 at 20:04

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