In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Now let’s talk about revising the work — how much and how many drafts? For me the answer has always been two drafts and a polish.
Stephen King does two drafts and a polish when it comes to his novels. It’s probably all he needs to do at this point — he is Stephen King after all. He could probably publish a messy first draft and make millions.
For your own work, though, are two drafts and a polish enough? One significant revision, then a copyedit?
Unless you’re a supremely gifted writer, I would suggest that you do more drafts than that.
I would aim for three drafts of your novel before you send it to beta readers to look at and critique your work.
At one point in On Writing, King talks about sending his very first draft to people for feedback, and I find that worrisome.
I would never send out a first draft to anyone. I was so excited about my newest middle grade novel in January that I actually asked my agent if she might read the first draft, and she had to say, no, no, do at least a second draft before you send it over.
Because first drafts are terrible. There are sentences that don’t make sense. Typo after typo on every page. Character motivations that seem to switch every other chapter.
At minimum you should do two drafts before anyone else reads your work. Three drafts is better. Three drafts allows you the time to not perfect your work necessarily but make it fully presentable to others.
How many drafts should you do before you start querying literary agents?
Again, at least three. For the love of God, at least three.
But this is another case where a couple more drafts will do you good. It’s better to take another month or two to complete additional drafts than to query agents with a manuscript that’s only 80% there.
Why waste six months of your life on a book that only gets three drafts and then only rejections from agents when you could spend eight months, maybe ten, getting your book exactly where it needs to be?
I have at least five unpublished manuscripts in the drawer that might have received more interest from agents if I had just spent a few more weeks working on them, getting more feedback from friends and writers I admire and trust.
Don’t do what I’ve done in the past. Take your manuscripts to the finish line no matter how long it takes.
So here’s a schedule you might try to follow when it comes to writing and revising your novel…
- Write the first draft. Write it fast. Aim for 2,000 words a day if possible. Or 1,000 if that’s more manageable. Even 500 words a day is solid.
- When you finish the first draft, put the novel in a drawer for at least two weeks, if not a month or longer. Let the book rest for a little bit.
- Then do a second draft all on your own. This often takes me 3–4 weeks to go through every chapter, fixing things I see along the way as I also take notes on the side for things I want to improve in the third draft.
- Take another break from the manuscript. 1–2 weeks is fine.
- Now do a third draft all on your own, and incorporate most of the notes you wrote down as you read through the second draft. By the end of this third draft, you will have a manuscript closer to how you envisioned your story when you first began writing it.
- Find three to five people to read your third draft. Give them at least three weeks, preferably four, to read the novel and get back to you with their thoughts. I have had close friends read my work, and I have also had more casual friends take a look. I put out a call last year for beta readers for my MFA thesis novel, and I had fifteen people agree to take a look at it! Fifteen, which I whittled down to five.
- Your fourth draft should take into account the feedback from your beta readers. If all five of them don’t like something about your manuscript, you need to do something about that problem. If only one of them criticizes something you love, then maybe it can stay. It’s up to you.
- Once you’ve finished this draft, you might be ready to start querying your book to literary agents. You can definitely do a few drafts of your query letter during this time. Research the agents. Put together a database of who you plan to send it to. And don’t forget to write a two-page synopsis of your novel as well.
- But before you query, yes, go through your novel one last time. A fifth draft. A polish, as King likes to say. You’re not really changing much story-wise in this fifth draft. This draft is for locating typos, awkward sentences, misspellings, things like that. In this fifth draft, make your work as clean and polished as possible. When you finish, I would go back and re-read your first ten pages one last time too, just because many agents ask to see the opening pages of your novel, and you want those to shine their brightest.
- Okay. Take a breath. It’s been seven or eight months since you wrote the first word of your book, maybe longer. I know it’s been hard, and it’s taken forever. But it’s finally time, I promise. Now you can start querying your novel to agents!
This is by no means the only way to write and revise a novel.
You might have a different process of your own that works better. This is just what has worked for me the past few years, especially in regards to the middle grade novel I wrote that finally secured me a literary agent in 2017.
At the end of the day, just remember this: revision is absolutely key to being a successful writer.
Do not ignore the revising process. And don’t just do a second draft and think your work is perfect and ready.
Take revision seriously, and you will go far, I guarantee it!