How Many Drafts Should You Write

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Wrinkled rough drafts
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In composition, a draft is a version of a piece of writing, often an early version (a "rough draft") in need of revision and editing.

Historian Jacques Barzun had this to say about drafting: "Convince yourself that you are working in clay not marble, on paper not eternal bronze: let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes. No one will rush out and print it as it stands. Just put it down; then another. Your whole first paragraph or first page may have to be guillotined in any case after your piece is finished" ("A Writer's Discipline").

From Old English, "drawing"


  • "I think it helps to consider a first draft a discovery draft. Assume that you're writing it to organize your ideas and discover what you want to say; when you do that, you can turn off that self monitor that criticizes as you write and just get something down. Often a first draft is little more than an exploration. You can trim, focus, and develop it later."
    (Maxine C. Hairston, Successful Writing, 3rd ed. Norton, 1992)
  • "I am an obsessive rewriter, doing one draft and then another and another, usually five. In a way, I have nothing to say, but a great deal to add."
    (Gore Vidal, interview in The New York Times, 1976)
  • "Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor."
    (Attributed to Joyce Carol Oates)
  • "Not until the final draft do I force myself to remember that I'm going to have to think about how it will affect other people."
    (Attributed to Anne Tyler)
  • Flexibility and First Drafts
    - "A good first draft is an oxymoron. It is often anything but good. It is not unusual for first drafts to be filled with incomplete ideas, unclear sentences, and clunky language."
    (Mary Jane Reed, Teaching Powerful Personal Narratives. Maupin House, 2004)
    - "No matter how good your planning, investigating, and organizing have been, chances are you will need to return to these activities as you draft. This fact of life leads to the first principle of successful drafting: be flexible. If you see that your organizational plan is not working, do not hesitate to alter it. If some information now seems irrelevant, leave it out, even if you went to great lengths to obtain it."
    (Andrea A. Lunsford, The St. Martin's Handbook, 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008)
  • Put Your Notes Away
    "Put your notes aside and write the first draft from memory. . . . Check your notes afterward for accuracy, but you will find that what you forget probably is best forgotten, and what you remembered in the flow of writing is what needs to be remembered."
    (Donald M. Murray, Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work. Heinemann, 2000)
  • John McPhee on First Drafts
    "First drafts are slow and develop clumsily, because every sentence affects not only those before it but those that follow. The first draft of a long piece on California geology took two gloomy years; the second, third, and fourth drafts took about six months altogether. That four-to-one ratio in writing time--first draft versus the other drafts combined--has for me been consistent in projects of any length, even if the first draft takes only a few days or weeks. There are psychological differences from phase to phase, and the first is the phase of the pit and the pendulum. After that, it seems as if a different person is taking over. Dread largely disappears. Problems become less threatening, more interesting. Experience is more helpful, as if an amateur is being replaced by a professional. Days go by quickly, and not a few could be called pleasant, I’ll admit."

    (John McPhee, "Draft No. 4." The New Yorker, April 29, 2013)

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