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How clean is your first draft?

3377 Views 31 Replies 30 Participants Last post by  Kathelm
For those who write fast, how clean is your first draft? Do you edit as you write or do you save that for later? And how long does it take you to revise?

I'm trying to improve my speed, but my inner editor keeps telling me that if I have a clean draft, I will save on revision time. And yes, I don't need to revise a lot, but then the first draft takes forever. Lol.
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"Clean?"  :eek:

This made me laugh. My first draft is a mess even I can't make out.
I don't worry, though. The idea is to get it down. All of it. Get the
story down. I let it sit (how long? Depends); then go back and
hone & polish & revise...until I feel I good about it. Then unleash it
unto the merciless world. It will either fly, or sink...maybe just
float along... But am done with it.

Hope this helps.
Usual disclaimer - haven't hit publish yet, take everything I say with a massive pinch of salt.  :)

Simple answer, in my opinion, is it's a balancing act. How you choose to work is very personal and it's about what works for you. It's finding the optimum balance I guess, between moving the work into the first draft time, or having it in the revision time.

I have always fallen into the camp of writing first drafts quickly. I believe very much in the "I can fix a bad page, I can't fix a blank page." philosophy. Plus I don't see the point in polishing something I might have to cut. Any editing beyond the basic spell check variety I leave for the very end of the revision process. I get the story right first, then worry about everything else.

I personally find it impossible to fix the story as I go, I need to look at the complete picture. Yes this has sometimes meant throwing out a whole draft and starting again. My first novel has gone through that four times and is currently on hold. I learned so much from it but I am way too close to make it my first published book. One day I'll get back to it but that's off topic.

My last book I wrote the first draft in two weeks. I then took some time off to get some distance from it, plus I moved house. It then took a month to revise it. That was putting in 6+ hours a day, most days. Obviously the number of hours you have to throw at it on a daily basis, will dictate how many weeks/months it is. Plus that draft was very wrecked, I learned from that revision. I applied a technique I'd learned on the revision to my outline for book two, in the hope this one won't be as wrecked. Have to wait and see on that score.

Either way it took me 6 weeks. Obviously that was only 6 weeks of my work. The book is now with my editor, so it's not a complete finished product yet but I have a complete manuscript to work with. I'm happy with that, that works for me but everyone is different.
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Over the course of over half a lifetime of learning to write I've developed a style that ends with first drafts nearly ready to go, with a read through afterwards for editing and minor revisions. During writing if I think of changes I'll either make them real quick or, for something more extensive or that requires a bit more searching, I'll leave a note to myself to do it during that read through.

My process involves writing random scenes as they come to me while I go through the book starting from chapter one, creating whole completed chapters and writing to connect the random scenes I've created and fill in the spaces between them. I'll make changes to scenes after the point where I've already completed work, but any changes I think of in the section I've already completed either gets a quick change or a note for the final read through. I also do a lot of cutting for scenes that no longer fit once I've reached that point, or correcting minor continuity errors. I keep a lot of notes about pertinent information in a separate file or at the front of the book that I can reference, and anything I'm not certain of I'll make a note of to check on.

So far it's worked very well for me as a quick and efficient method of getting writing done, without the need for major revisions too often. But it took a long time to get to the point where I could sit down and write like that.
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Disclaimer: I outline. I write fast. I do a modified 'edit as I go'. I keep detailed notes.

My first draft is usually clean. Better to say, it's not a wreck. Normally it takes one edit and one polish pass before it's ready to go.
Mine varies. Sometimes, it's really clean. Hardly have to revise it. Other times?

Well, I call the other times 'draft zero.'

It takes me a while to edit. I often rewrite entire chapters. I consider the first draft to be the 'bones' of the story. Good description and transition and pace is the muscle and ligament. Fixing grammar and typoes completes it with skin.

Right now, I started editing my first chapter while writing the fifteenth. But everyone is different. Find out what works for you. So long as it ends up with a completed book, that's all that matters right?
Short stories (under 10k words). First draft takes around 7 hours then 2 or 3 edits totalling just short of 30 hours. Around 36 hours per story
I produce a very clean draft and do virtually no revision. I incline towards the plotting rather than the pantsing end of the spectrum, though.
It depends. My first book needed its entire middle ripped out and rewritten after the first draft because it was terrible, but my second and third books didn't require nearly as much revision. I wrote them, edited with a single, thorough pass, proofread, and then sent them out the door. That's my plan for the foreseeable future, too, unless I have some sort of mishap in a certain section of a story that requires a major rewrite. Hopefully, that doesn't happen, but seeing as I have a crap-ton of books to write, I'm sure I'll stumble at some point... ;D
My first draft is 85 percent print ready. When something needs to be fixed, I don't stop my forward momentum. Instead I make a note and hit it on the read-through. Then I send it to an editor who rips the grammar apart and tightens it. Then I read through it again. Then I'm done and move on to the next one.
Horrible. Nearly unreadable.

As my editor once said, "You can't fix it until it's in writing. No one can't edit what's in your head."

But everyone has their own style, methods, quirks, and procedures. My writing is so bad, I have to take three or four passes anyway. Even if I squeezed every sentence, I'd still have to make those trips down Story Lane.

So, I bust it. I just type like a demon, not even looking at the screen. Keeps going, and going, and going...

When I'm not in a creative mood, or haven't decided on a specific story element, then I'll go back and taking another pass on the obvious stuff.

my first drafts arre pretty clean - mostly what gets cleaned up n beta or by my editor are things lie commas, run-on sentences, and my tendency to begin sentences with "and so".  But I was a technical writer for 30 years or so, and learned real fast that what I considered a rough draft tended to be seeen by my reviewers as a semi-final one, only needing technical corrections.

I rarely get comments by my editors on plot points or characterization issues, so to that extent the drafts I send out for review are clean.
Lydniz said:
I produce a very clean draft and do virtually no revision. I incline towards the plotting rather than the pantsing end of the spectrum, though.
I'm trying this with my current book. I spend a lot of time on word choices, phrasing, etc., so it's slowed me down to about 3,000 words a week (I write/edit about 25 hours a week.) But since I was spending so much time on revisions on the previous books, I think it will work out about the same.
What Joe's says; what Yoda says. Exactly. I can relate.

Then, too, there's times the characters just refuse to let me be. I'll let
the thing sit for a while, and there they are: the peeps in the story/novel, etc.,
nagging at me, pestering, nudging: wanting to do more.
It was like that with Lustmord, the horror novel that gave me nightmares.
What did I do? Went back & let them go at it, do whatever the hell they wanted.
Once again (there were quite a few of those), let the thing sit. You'd have thought the characters would've been happy (after dozens re-visits).
No way.
This is what writing Lustmord was like: they just refused to leave me alone.
It was impossible. Year after year. Always after something else, wanting to say more, do
I must be weak, because I succumbed & let them have their way.
Finally, it was done. They quit bothering me & I was grateful for the peace of mind. ;D

But yes, now & then, you get lucky & that first draft is it. Nothing to ad or subtract.
You read it, looked at it...and can't seem to find a way to improve on it. That's when you know it's time to walk away. Leave it alone. I don't know, at the risk of coming across as pretentious, call it "zen." It can take years to develop this way of looking/approaching your work; just simply knowing when to walk away & say: Done. Time to scale another cliff and/or attempt to cross another highwire. The beauty & thrill & challenge of what we do. And why we keep doing it.
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I don't edit until I've written the first draft completely through.  My first draft isn't clean, but I don't think editing takes any more time than if I were to edit as I go.  I usually write the first draft, put it aside for a month, and then go back in for the edit. 

The exception to my method of writing is when I get stuck.  If I'm stuck, I reread what I've got so far, editing as I go, and then I can usually figure out what to do next.  I will still edit the whole thing again, though.

I am just now turning the first chunk of my second novel, "Warlock" into a first draft. Some people might call what I have already a "first draft" but I don't. I consider what I have right now to be a pile of clay in the general shape and size of a novel, but filled with cracks, gaps, lumps and imbalance. I am roughly halfway through the process of taking that and making it into something that vaguely resembles a "story." And by "story" I mean the plot hangs together, the characters are somewhat developed, the theme is reinforced, key events are foreshadowed, the timeline has no obvious gaps or overlaps and the story flows from scene to scene without jarring inconsistencies or continuity gaps.

My first drafts are pretty "clean" from a spelling, grammar and punctuation perspective. I've got a few known bad habits that I try to clean up before calling the first draft "done".

Where my first drafts are still pretty dirty is in things like specific foreshadowing, particular character development goals, hanging threads (a story thread is started, but never completed), point of view issues and editorial things like voice and phrasing. As part of getting to the point of having a "first draft," I create a "punch list" of issues that need to be dealt with, and those are what I work on for subsequent drafts.
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My "first draft" is about 75-90% clean. But I edit as I go so I've probably been through the book 2-3x by the time my first draft is done. I have to get the first act pretty much worked out before I can really get going with the story. From writing this way, most of my editing after the first draft is finished is polish and cutting our boring parts. Although, sometimes I have to do a lot of work to the first act. I consistently find the set-up/backstory the hardest part to get right in a manuscript. 

For context, I can finish (meaning it's ready to publish) a long novel (90k words) in 6-8 weeks and a novella or short novel (30-50k) in 4-6 weeks. I've yet to figure out how to do a long, complex novel in a month. I also spend about 10 hrs outlining before I start writing.   

My hours spent on the first draft vs revision end up being about 4:1 (rough draft: revision). Honestly, I'm not sure if editing as I go speeds me up or slows me down. But I don't feel like it substantially slows me down either. I'm still working out my methods, but I've increased my productivity the most by leaving research and extensive polish for the very end.
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If it's clean I'm doing it wrong. My choice is to draft fairly quickly, without feeling rushed; to let the creative side of my brain go without much correction. By design, my first drafts are doodoo, but I don't stop to fix it. That comes later.
I have found the cleaner the draft, the editing costs are more reasonably-priced.
So far I've completed first drafts of three novels. All of them were fairly clean in a technical sense - not many typos, at least - but needed massive structural reworking. The scarcity of typos isn't because I'm a brilliant typist, but rather that I seem to have a built-in instant editor: as soon as I've typed a sentence or two, I automatically go back and fix the obvious errors. It doesn't hold up the creative process at all, because it requires no mental effort. Indeed, it gives my fingers something to do while I'm thinking about what's going to happen next.

What this editor can't spot, of course, is anything structural or indeed anything that requires you to look at more than a line at a time, like repetitive use of a word you keep repeating!
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