Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Thinking in Multiple Drafts

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 21, 2012

[Quick note: if you're interested in the videos we started here last Wednesday ("A Long Tail Business"), they continue this week—and for the next month—on Mondays. Click here or on "The Series" drop-down menu above to view the other videos.]

I imbibed this piece of screenwriting wisdom from Jack Epps (“Top Gun,” “Dick Tracy”) a few years ago:

Tom Cruise in Cash & Epps' "Top Gun"

“You can’t do everything in one draft.”

Hollywood is like major league baseball. The manager doesn’t hesitate to bring in a reliever. Writer #1 originates the script. He gets fired. Writer #2 is brought in to solidify the structure. She gets yanked. #3 strengthens the characters. #4 beefs up the action. It’s maddening, it’s infuriating, it’s excruciating. But, in some demented way, it works. Sometimes anyway.

The point for you and me is that, over the course of any long-term project, we ourselves have to be those multiple writers. We may have to wear a different hat for each draft, each stage of development. This is true for launching a start-up, making a record album, writing a piece of software.

The axiom is: You can’t do everything in one draft.

The corollary: Pick one aim for each draft and do that only.

After I’ve finished the first draft of a book, I’ll do another just to be sure the stakes are high and clear. I’ll do one after that, focusing only on the theme.

Sometimes a draft can go very fast. I’ll ask myself, What are the turning points in this story? Then I’ll go through the whole piece, making sure that each one is where it’s supposed to be and that each one is working.

I’ll do one draft only on the villain.

Then another, working strictly on rhythm.

Suppose I read through the manuscript and decide it’s 15% too long. The next draft I’ll do nothing but cut.

There’s no shame in going over something fifteen times. Sometimes fifteen isn’t enough.

What’s helpful about thinking in multiple drafts is that it takes the pressure off. We don’t have to climb Mt. Everest in one afternoon. We don’t have to repair the New York City subway system in a single night.

Thinking in multiple drafts gives us patience. It’s workmanlike. It makes sense.

A gymnast breaks down her technique (or her coach does) into fifty different segments. The mount. The dismount. The approach. The approach to the approach. The approach before the approach. The breath before the approach before the approach.

You and I walk into a new restaurant. We’re blown away by the decor, the palette, the lighting, the architecture, the menu, the presentation, the after-service.

How many iterations did the restaurant owner go through before she reached this ultimate presentation? We don’t know, and we’re not supposed to know.

The pro knows how many generations it takes before his work is ready for prime time. He knows because he has tried, in the past, to pull it off with fewer generations. He has flopped. He has tried to do everything in one draft. And he has crashed.

It helps to think in terms of multiple drafts. Tackle one task at a time, focusing on it and nothing else. Then take on the next. Repeat until you’ve got it right.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

19 Responses to “Thinking in Multiple Drafts”

  1. November 21, 2012 at 3:49 am

    Excellent advice. I’m on draft three of a novel (I know, only the baby stages) and the task of the next draft seemed a gargantuan one until I read your article. Thank you.

  2. November 21, 2012 at 4:10 am

    There’s a thing to be said about too much rewriting and the search for perfection, and drafts getting progressively worse through revisions, but generally speaking you are right on the money here. I rewrite as I am writing and then chunk out projects into segments and see how they stand on their own. Still haven’t sold anything, but that’ll change. Thanks for the interesting article.

  3. Basilis
    November 21, 2012 at 4:14 am

    I guess writing is madness!

  4. November 21, 2012 at 8:23 am

    Proof once again that Truth is usually dirt simple and hidden in plain site.

    And once again, it kind of makes one feel foolish because its so obvious!

    As I read this I’m realizing that it applies to any writing; ad copy, my newsletters, blog posts, etc.

    Thanks again – You Da Man! :)

  5. November 21, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    I do multiple revisions on my novels, and talk about “this stage of the editing.” I’ve often felt foolish but know in my bones this is my process. I liken it to combing really tangled hair. You have to do it in stages, starting at the bottom, the small tangles, and then working up to the top, when you’re able to finally comb all the way through. I always look forward to that feeling of satisfaction with my novels, but never reach it 100%. I released my first novel into the word with about 95% satisfaction. I may be one of those novelists who is never absolutely satisfied with the final result. I always think it can be better tomorrow!

  6. Kimberly Patron
    November 21, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Ahhh, thank you. Turning pro, turning pro….

  7. November 21, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    I was 85% done with my latest project, then I started to read Robert McKee’s “Story.”

    Now I’m on the draft called “Start from the beginning and implement Robert McKee’s ‘Story.’”

    And I don’t mind one bit, because it will result in a much better book. Thanks for another gem, Steven!

  8. TLRay
    November 21, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Thank you. I’m working on a second draft at the moment and not only am I overwhelmed, because I know how I want the final product to read, but I’m in such a learning curve I could scream. Then to top it off, you read other writers spewing out their pearls of wisdom on how slick their process is and it makes a new writer feel so useless. I knew immediately that it would take multiple drafts…because of my inexperience. Now I see, it’s my process, it’s what will work for me.

    • November 22, 2012 at 10:55 pm

      I try not to listen to those writers because they’re either lying or they have a lot of experience, like Elmore Leonard or Stephen King.

  9. November 21, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Great stuff. I suggest a corollary to the corollary: the aim for the first draft is to get it done. That and no more.

  10. November 21, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    Whoa!! Great advice. I am writing a non fiction personal development, and this advice was bang on!! I have been trying to perfect each chapter as I go along. Now I know I can fly through and do the first draft and then revisit to tie in things and chapters.
    Steven you are simply awesome. This sort of advice would normally cost big bucks!! – Much appreciated.
    Oh and thank you so much for the Video series too – The Long Tail Business. That is so assuring. I was focusing on self publishing on kindle and iBooks, and now I am damn sure.

  11. November 22, 2012 at 11:31 am

    I like the word ‘generations’ And I don’t feel so inadequate now, knowing a great author as you do many generations too. Thank you
    J

  12. November 22, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    Brilliant!

  13. November 22, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Really good advice. I’m trying to write a new novel and I’ll definitely keep this in mind when it comes time to revise. Thanks again.

  14. November 23, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Steve, you wrote,
    We ourselves have to be those multiple writers.
    That’s so true. Another way to say it is we ourselves get to be those multiple writers. It’s an opportunity, a privilege. A lot of folks are trying to go straight to step 10 of a ten step process. Why not instead engage in the entire process, enjoy it, and complete it?

  15. November 24, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    This is exactly what I did with my memoir. I came to it by trial and error, and trying to find a way to #1- not be overwhelmed and #2-feel like I’d accomplished something at the end of each run-through.

    For example: one draft was all about making sure that each chapter ended in a way that made the reader want to read on. Another was all about the WWII letters (correspondence)each chapter included; did each letter move the story forward? And on and on. I also color-coded my drafts, instead of using numbers. My rationale was that one draft wasn’t necessarily worse or better than another. They were all just necessary. And so the number of times I went through was also irrelevant. Glad to see I am not alone! ~Karen

  16. November 26, 2012 at 11:20 am

    It took me fourteen redrafts to complete my first novel ‘The Christening’ for publication. (see http://www.trysoftaproductions.com) As I look back now … the first draft reads like an eleven year old wrote it! Thank God I never submitted it to anyone. It wasn’t till draft six that I discovered what I was doing … (facing off with my SELF) By the tenth draft the hero and heroine finally had their shit together were defined. By the fourteenth I realised that it takes heroic work to complete your first book.
    I have grown to love the process of redrafting … It’s like polishing a diamond. Every draft is equal to a carat. 14 carats is pretty good for a first try! Guinness (the Beer Company) have since bought the story!

    DO THE WORK!

  17. November 30, 2012 at 9:17 am

    This is good! Wow, great stuff. Love your work. This is off topic, but you have a nice smile, Mr. Pressfield.