How many drafts of one piece do you write? I ask, because when I receive an assignment those that are still first drafts stand out for several reasons. They contain spelling (or more probably typing) errors, homophones (where words sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings), and there are usually structural errors too.
It doesn’t matter how much outlining you do either (although outlining may resolve many of the structural problems writers face). Even if you’ve outlined your piece to death, that first draft is just that: a first draft. Unintentional errors still creep in. And remember, whatever you’re writing, the text you submit to an editor/publisher is the first impression they’ll have of you as a writer, so don’t let the first draft be that first impression.
First drafts give you freedom. As Anne Lamontt says in her book Bird by Bird, it’s acceptable to write “those shitty first drafts” because they become the stepping stones to the third and fourth drafts of sheer brilliance. Once you accept the first draft is just that, it offers freedom. There’s no need to worry about getting everything right. Just get down the points you want to make. Further drafts are for tidying up.
Many of you will know that I use Scrivener as my writing software of choice, and one function I particularly like is the snapshot option. One click of a button and it captures a copy of the text as it stands at that moment. Many word processors offer this facility now, where you can keep track of different versions. The beauty of such software is that you can always roll back to a previous draft if the current draft has wandered off down the wrong side-turning.
I should also point out that there’s no magic number of drafts you have to undertake to reach a polished piece. Take as many as you need. I tend to review my first draft for structural problems, and then each subsequent draft looks at different aspects: cutting to the required wordlength, stylistic issues, spelling and punctuation, and so on. Sometimes I find three drafts gets me to where I want to be, other times it can many more.
I also plan this drafting process into my writing schedule, even when I have a deadline. Having a regular column in Writing Magazine means that I’m sending off an article to the editor every four weeks, or so. As soon as I’ve submitted one, I start working on the next. This gives me four weeks to undertake several drafts.
Putting work aside for a couple of days really does help to give you a fresh perspective on your work. Something that wasn’t obvious at the time might jump out at you now.
So next time you finish writing a complete draft of a piece of writing put it to one side. Congratulate yourself on having finished your text, and celebrate if you want to. But understand that a first draft is the start of the writing process, not the end. A first draft is the hardest draft though. Subsequent drafts are easier to cope with.