In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High, I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but puffy. You need to revise for length. Formula: 1st Draft — 10%. Good luck.’
In the first draft, go as long as you want.
Within reason, of course. But don’t obsess over the length of your short story or novel when you’re writing the first draft. Tell yourself the story. Write the scenes you want to write. The first draft is not the time to be shy. Attack your story in the best way you can.
Every good idea, every character interaction that adds something to the story, put it in there. Better to add it to the first draft and cut it later than have to write a new scene from scratch in the months to come.
Sometimes that does happen, of course. I’ll be on the fifth draft of a novel, or the tenth draft, or, like in a case recently, the nineteenth draft, and there I am writing a brand new scene that never existed in the novel before. The deeper you’re into your revisions, the harder it is (at least for me) to write new content because so much of the book is now polished, while that new scene you just wrote is still only a first draft.
So — again, within reason — write the first draft as long as you want. If it’s a short story, write 10,000 words, why not. If it’s a novel, write 120,000 words if that’s what you feel you need to do.
(Although, when it comes to novels, do be aware of average word counts for your genre and/or market. If you’re writing a contemporary middle grade novel, it’s not in your best interest to write a 120,000-word first draft. That’s just wasting time in the long run.)
Remember the most important thing about a first draft is that you finished it. Whether you come in on the short end or the long end, finishing the thing is what truly counts.
But whenever possible, you should try to finish a first draft of a short story or novel a little bit on the long end. Why?
Because then you can spend time on the second draft trimming the fat of your manuscript, preferably by about 10%.
A big reason why I like to go a little long in the first draft of a novel is that I like to cut, cut, cut. Trim, trim, trim. Look at a scene, look at a page, and see what needs to be there and what can go.
I am a ruthless editor of my own work. I have been known to cut 5,000 words, 10,000 words, even sometimes up to 20,000 words easily, without remorse, without crying my eyes out over all those missing words I may have wasted my time on in that first draft.
The first draft of my MFA thesis novel in August of 2017 came in at 110,000 words. The second draft? 76,000. That’s right, I cut 34,000 words out of that first draft, which is kind of insane.
That, very much, was an extreme case.
Most recently I had a case much similar to the advice King received all those years ago. The first draft of my new middle grade novel in January of 2019 came in at 60,000 words. The second draft? 54,000. This one I didn’t go too extreme. This one, as it turns out, I cut exactly 10% out of the novel.
And I did so without removing a single scene. I even added a little bit here and there, too.
Those 6,000 words I cut from the first draft of my middle grade novel? They were long sentences that didn’t need to be long. They were sentences of description in the middle of a paragraph that served no strong purpose in the story.
I removed most of the fat. I removed all of that puffiness.
Cutting is one of the prime things I like to do in the second draft of a novel. I like to read it through first without any revision at all, and then I spend three to four weeks going through the book chapter by chapter and what I mostly do during this time is cut, cut, cut.
You can’t be precious about your words in a manuscript. You have to include the words that need to be there, that make your story its best, and then you have to remove the words that bring your story down.
Cutting 10% from the first draft is a good marker. Sure, it might be 5% or 8% or maybe even 15% or more depending on how long you went. But I don’t believe you should necessarily use the second draft of any writing project to add a whole lot. You should be using it to cut.
Instead, use the third, fourth, and fifth drafts to add material. You will have time down the road to add that one scene you forgot to include in the first draft, or build upon your description and imagery.
In the second draft, you should be reading through your manuscript slowly, taking notes about what elements of your story and characters are working and what aren’t. Any scene that’s confusing. Any exchange of dialogue that could use some work.
Let me make this very clear — you do not need to fix every single thing in the second draft.
Unless you’re a genius, you’re not going to get everything right in the first draft, and you certainly won’t get everything right in the second.
Use the second draft for taking notes on what needs improvement, on what you could potentially add in the drafts to come, and use it to cut your manuscript down by, on average, 10%.
If the first draft of your novel comes in at 100,000 words, then aim for 90,000 words for the second draft. If the first draft of your short story comes in at 5,000 words, then yes, aim for 4,500 words on that second draft.
No matter what stage of the revising process you’re in, you should always be thinking about what you can cut. If it doesn’t have to be there… then it needs to go!
Even if you love the scene. Even if you love the character. If it’s not adding anything, you might have to make the tough decision of deleting it from the manuscript.
At the very least, try to cut around 10% in that second draft. It’s a great rule to live by to be a successful writer!