I was recently speaking with another writer and they asked me how many drafts I usually go through on an average short story. I had to think about that one for a few minutes. I mean, we kept talking…there wasn’t a five minute gap of awkward silence. I told him I’d have to get back to him on that one.
So I started running through the past handful of stories I’d written and thought about my process. Generally, the first draft goes quickly. I don’t begin writing until I at least have the first page or two in mind. Once I get to that point the gears are rolling and the rest of the first draft comes out in a rush of words. It might take me a couple of days, maybe a week, to get it all out, but that’s due to time constraints.
After that, I usually let the story sit for a week or two. I don’t like to re-read or begin editing the first draft until I’ve had some time away from it. By the time the first draft is finished I feel like I’m too close to the story and need that time away to get some perspective. It’s like being in a relationship. You love to be with this other person, but sometimes it’s good to spend a little time apart so you can miss them and think about how awesome they are.
When it comes to rewriting, every writer has their own method of madness. For me, I do a read through of a printed copy of the first draft with red pen in hand. I prefer paper because I find it easier to make notes in the margins and I’m less inclined to begin rewriting before I’m ready. Once I make my initial edits, I open the file on my MacBook and make the first pass. This is mostly going to be superficial edits, like cleaning up some ideas, fixing spelling and grammar errors, maybe giving my characters proper names (I use filler names on the first draft).
After I’m done with that, then I give it another read through and begin thinking about the plot, the overall arc, and the ending. One thing about my stories, it’s very rare for the original ending to make it all the way to the final draft. I find that by the second or third draft I’ve made some changes to the story that require the ending to change. I’m not sure if this is true for other writers, but it seems to be my modus operandi. I may have a specific ending in mind at the beginning, but I always let the story dictate where things end up. It may be neat and tidy or it may be messy and ugly, but I don’t decide that. It’s all up to the story.
The second draft is where the heavy changes come into play. This is the point where I make sure things tie together, that my characters are chasing their wants or needs, and that things tie up the way the story requires. Once I’ve made my second pass, I let it rest again. At least a week, but there are times when drafts have sat for years. Sometimes it’s due to other stories taking my attention, or maybe just life in general. But that time away from it always helps.
Third draft? Sometimes. I’m sure there are people who would argue that my stories could use a third or fourth or fifth draft, but I find that by the time I hit the second draft the story is there. I’m also one of those writers that believes there’s such a thing as too many rewrites. Overkill. My stories are never perfect and they never appear on the page quite like they do in my head. But I’m not going to fuss over it and spend an abundance of time trying to get it just right. Why? Because I’ll never be completely happy with it. I know this and I accept it. The best thing I can do is write a good story, make sure it’s close to how I imagined it, then cut it loose.
In the end, it comes down to the individual writer. We all have our own methods for writing and editing. Sure, we probably all start out following some specific method, but over time we find what works best for us. That’s really all that matters. Tell the story your way. Write the story your way.