So I understand the first draft which is basically writing whatever comes to mind but I don't understand why we have to rewrite it three times. Can someone please explain to me? What exactly do we have to do in the second and third draft of the story?
There is no fixed number of drafts. I go through several drafts, (I've done twenty, in the past), to correct problems I know I have persistently in writing.
1) Writing off the top of my head, I tend to be repetitive. I dislike that in writing and so do most people. So I find places where I have said the same thing just in different ways, or used multiple adjectives that are nearly the same thing, and cut or revise to say it in one BEST way. I don't need to tell or show readers three ways that Alice was surprised.
2) Dialogue walls, AKA talking heads. I don't usually write these, but they are a symptom of an under-imagined scene. People don't just talk at each other, they have bodies, they are moving in an environment, or at least looking around, they can feel things, think things they don't say, recall memories, smell things, have emotional reactions to things. My characters are very seldom standing still and just looking at each other, and if my dialogue exchange could just as well be that -- It needs to be longer. The scene is under-imagined. That is boring.
3) Colors. Smell. Sounds. Temperature. Touch sensation. Although my characters are usually in motion and are experiencing emotions, I do have a tendency to write in "black and white." I just forget to think about color and other senses. They enrich the scene, and (to me) often surprise me in the associations they afford. Again, a symptom of an under-imagined scene. I don't write all of them at once, and usually only include one extra sense in the mix, but c'mon, if somebody is having a conversation while cooking in the kitchen, and I don't include even one mention of what they smell, I am not writing well.
4) Continuity (=Transition failures). Voice. Out of Character. Lack of Conflict (Infodump is a subset of Lack of Conflict). Readers read to find out what happens next. There should be basically four ranges of tension in a story: What happens in the next few pages, what happens at the end of this scene/chapter, what happens at the end of this Act, what happens to end the story.
What happens in the next few pages: Infodumps and setting descriptions should not be more than about 250 words long (roughly one page in paperback) before something happens. No matter how poetic and beautiful my description may be, I know that tensionless description is what makes people stop reading. Describe, be poetic if you like, but make it short. They turn the page to see what happens next right now, and describing the beautiful Spring mountain range and that spring-fed trout lake nestled in it for two pages is a good time to fold up the book and get to bed.
What happens at the end of the scene/chapter: Most of my chapters are set in one place, so a scene and a chapter are quite similar. A scene advance the plot or story, in some way. It decides something. It presents a problem, or a clue to the solution, or a dilemma, or an emergency to deal with. I kind of think of them as challenge-response. So we need scene tension, to get the reader through the scene, they want to see how the MC handles the challenge. Generally that response should make the reader wonder how that is going to turn out, so they start the next chapter.
Book tension: MC's should be engaged in the big picture, and that should be injected at least once in every chapter. What's the overall goal? What has the villain done now? How have things gotten worse, or more difficult? The story is about solving some big problem. The MCs do that by solving a lot of smaller problems and challenges, but we are building toward a confrontation, always running late, and every battle we win still costs us and that may lose us the war. Paradoxically, you want your MC to succeed but (until the third Act) it feels like the major goal is receding or becoming even more difficult to achieve.
5) Act Length. I divide my story into four equal parts; each roughly 25% of the book. Act I: The MC and their normal world. Halfway through, the "inciting incident" occurs, something that will grow in the second half of Act I into a big problem. At the end of Act I, the MC must leave her normal world (metaphorically or physically) to solve the problem presented by the "inciting incident".
Act IIa: Reactive fixes. The MC tries to fix the problem in some easy way, and fails. She tries again, the problem gets worse. She tries a third easy fix, and now things are very bad. But at the end of Act IIa, she has learned something, about the villain, or problem, or herself. There is an epiphany at the middle of the book.
Act IIb: Proactive fixes. Using this epiphany, she starts to try intelligent fixes. She learns more. She is acting rationally now, not just reacting, but planning. It is again a three-step process. Something gets a little better, a little problem is solved. Then a victory. Then another and it comes with a full understanding of what she needs to do next, which is often risky.
Act III: The big plan and confrontation. She executes, adapts as she goes, and prevails. For the final scene, she either returns to her normal world (or some version of it), or she begins life in her new normal. The End.
I call them Act IIa and IIb out of respect for the Three Act Structure, which is a good thing to research.
For the purpose of drafts, I want my acts to be between 20% and 30% of the book, and if they are too long I need to cut. If they are too short, I need more scenes. My Act III (the finale) is quite often shorter than the others, but I don't want it too short and sudden, I won't go under 20%. You could call this draft "Pacing", I don't want to bore the reader with any one of these being too long, or confuse the reader by having any one of these too short.
This is particularly true of the beginning, many novice writers rush the beginning of their novel to get to "the good stuff". It is 1/8 of the book. In an 80,000 word novel, 10,000 words. 40 pages in paperback, before we get to the inciting incident.
That is the most valuable real estate in the whole novel, because it is THERE the reader learns enough about your character to care about her, want her to succeed, to see her deal with problems (usually trivial ones you devise to show her character), deal with friends, deal with non-friend irritants, deal with family, or loneliness, or whatever. For drafting purposes, definitely do not cut this short. Fully imagine your MC and show us what she's made of, before you start firing bullets at her. We need to know her to care about her.
Added in response to comments: Also check out this answer of mine, about the psychology of starting a new story (From the POV of a Discovery writer, me).
These answers (of mine) may be helpful also.
OK, it would be helpful to know the source of this advice. But, absent that information, here is my take on the issue.
First, I do not subscribe to the notion that there is a fixed and required number of drafts. You revise until you are done. Done might be "I have to turn it in now." or it might be "I have taken care of all of the issues that I care about."
Second, there are a whole host of structural issues that you might wish to address. I will list just a few, with the proviso that there are many more:
- Sequencing issues such as where and when events happen. That is, you go through the manuscript to check that you do not have gaps in the where and when that will distract the reader.
- Smoothing out info dumps. That is, it is natural to dump information into the story as you write the first draft that would distract the reader if left in the final product. If the information is important to the story, you figure out how to slip it into the story as a part of dialogue or brief narration.
- Pacing issues such as scenes in which the story does not advance or there is no engagement on the part of the characters. You might have waxed poetic on the weather or the landscape or the moral decay of western civilization. Good stuff but maybe more than the story needs.
- Dialogue issues such as the fact that all of the characters sound the same.
I am an engineer and am accustomed to checklists. Before you ship, you go down the checklist to ensure that you and the team have done the things that must be done before shipping. In my mind, writing (done correctly) is a form of engineering. The issues that I listed above (and many more) should be part of the "check before shipping/submitting" checklist for writers. The really good engineering teams can run through their checklists without having to make a lot of major changes. I suppose that the truly great writers might also achieve that level of performance. For the rest of us, it pays to make sure. I would not trust engineer or writer that had no checklist and/or failed to make one last quality check.
In other words, you, as a writer, must decide what is important to you. Having decided that, you must inspect your work to ensure that you have taken care of those things.
The point of "subsequent drafts" is that for 99% of writers, the first draft is weak. That's completely fine. The purpose of the first draft is to get the damn thing on paper. You can't edit an empty page.
Subsequent drafts are for fixing weak spots: in plot, timeline, character, worldbuilding, credibility, theme, and so on.
You might need two or three rounds to fix those trouble spots depending on how many or how extensive they are. There is no magic number beyond "probably more than one." Mercedes Lackey rewrote her first trilogy seventeen times before it was published. Gregory Maguire took ten years to write Wicked. Barbara Cartland probably just did a spellcheck.
Your final one or two rounds should be polishing: grammar, spelling, punctuation.
The real question is what you consider one draft to be. Is it "one complete round of edits from beginning to end" or "rewrite the entire book"? Because it's usually not necessary to rewrite the entire book three times, but you will do multiple rounds of edits.
Write three drafts? In my 54-year career, I've written technical reports, technical manuals, a PhD dissertation, and now fiction, and if I could have done any of them in only three drafts, I would have been extremely happy. My first novel (started in 2008) is in its 51st draft. Not complete rewrites, but enough changes to constitute a new revision. So what's the problem with doing only three rewrites? Doesn't sound like much of a burden to me. A truly expert writer might be able to write everything down and it will be perfect. For the rest of us, six to eight drafts might be required as an optimal goal. My third novel is now in its 16th draft. One of these days, I will stop revising and start submitting.
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
— Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956
What is a draft?
I mean that sincerely.
And I mean it as a frame challenge. Advice about numbers of drafts and other rules about writing usually comes from pretty old advice that doesn't apply so much anymore. If it ever did.
Back when I was in primary school, a draft was what you wrote on a fresh sheet of paper. You then marked it up until it was unreadable and wrote it out clean. That was your next draft.
In secondary school, I had a typewriter, though I did a lot by hand too. A draft was the same, only typed, with handwritten corrections.
I didn't have a computer until well into college, and mostly not until grad school. Up to the present day. The idea of a draft has lost much of its meaning. I revise a lot. I write up a chapter and feel that it's done. Sometimes my husband reads it and comments and I make changes if needed. Sometimes I print it out to read to my critique group, then make changes based on their comments. Other times I just re-read it and tweak stuff. Often I make revisions on chapters before I'm done writing them. I couldn't even begin to give you a number of "drafts" I've done. One? Fifty?
A draft often means something you turn in to a teacher.
If you're in a class, you might be asked to turn in a first draft and any number of subsequent drafts, then the final copy. This isn't because X number of drafts is what writers need. It's your teacher's way of making sure you're progressing and not saving all the work for the last minute.
I've done it myself when I taught college students to write essays. I didn't care if the first draft was an outline or a skeleton essay or a fleshed out portion of the essay with nothing else done. I just wanted to see work. If I asked for a second draft, I simply wanted to see more work than the first draft. It was also a way to make sure the student chose a workable topic and was on track.
Sometimes a draft gets a new number because you've hit a deadline.
My first draft is always what I end up with when I'm done with the chapter (I'm not yet done with my novel, so I don't have a first draft of it yet). I could call what I give to my critique group my second draft. And so on. It's pretty arbitrary.
The important take-away is that you rethink, rework, and revise.
The numbers don't matter. No one will be watching to see if you revise the entire work at once or if you focus on certain bits. So long as you understand that it's rare to have an entire work just right the first time and that you put in the work to make it better.
The last step is proofreading.
However many drafts come before, and however you count them or make them happen, once you're satisfied with your work, the very last step is to proofread. Not yourself, mind you. You've already done that. But by an outsider. This isn't beta reading, which is editing or critique by outside people, and will have been part of your editing/drafting process.
Is it done yet?
Maybe. Maybe not. Depends what you do with it next.
The only place I'm aware of that mandates writing three drafts are writing classes. For those classes, writing three drafts is absolutely mandatory, because each of them get graded separately.
That said, one of my instructors for such a class did inform exactly one student on exactly one assignment that he could turn his second draft in for the third draft assignment because it didn't need any corrections. But that would only happen when the instructor dictated it, and that was a high school level class so the writing assignment had not been very significant size, just a dozen pages or so. Turning in the second draft for the third draft assignment otherwise would likely result in a very poor grade for the third draft, or possibly be treated as if the assignment had not been handed in.
As the other posters have said, doing a substantial amount of writing in only three drafts is not the general expectation. For the class I mentioned above, I didn't turn in drafts 1, 2, and 3, as per the assignment. It was more like drafts 4, 12, and 30, though I didn't do a formal count and it was decades ago.
Rather than three drafts, per se, it's more correct to say there are three typical phases to writing.
1. Initial Concept: Writing just to get your ideas on paper, and to make sure you don't forget them --raw, unfiltered creativity AKA writing with your internal editor turned off.
2. Restructuring: Big changes, scenes inserted or deleted, characters introduced, combined, or eliminated, chronology rearranged, and so forth.
3. Polishing: Fine grained editing, to eliminate all errors and typos, and make sure every word and sentence glows.
Your actual number of drafts may vary. Jack Kerouac famously claimed to have written On The Road in a single, unedited draft (but that turned out to not strictly be true). Other authors can write scores of drafts, and still others never quit revising. However, if you are interested in the three draft model, there are books and articles detailing how to finish a book or story by using it.