Have you ever wondered which draft you are working on? Do you wonder what the difference is between your first draft, your second draft, and editing your book? Let's break down the first draft definition and the differences between drafts.
When writing multiple drafts of a book, you may be halfway through your rough draft and decide to start over. Or you may have written the entire manuscript, but then wish to scrap it and start fresh.
And when considering this, you question: “Am I writing a first draft? Am I editing my novel?”
What does “first draft” mean—or “second draft,” for that matter?
Knowing the differences between first drafts, second drafts, and editing your book will elevate your ability to tackle the writing and editing process. It will help you understand what to focus on when you're writing—and have fun while you do it!
What Does “First Draft” Mean?
The first draft is a completed manuscript that has NOT been edited; in other words, a rough initial draft of your piece of writing. In most cases, a first draft requires further work to be publication-ready.
To put it simply, the first draft is a pile of words thrown together.
If you have written most of your story, but never finished it, and you decide to start over, is that a first draft?
Until that amazing, miraculous, hard-earned moment where you type the words “The End,” you have not completed your manuscript. It is still in the first draft stage.
What if you’re starting from the first page and rewriting a story that is already over halfway finished?
It is still the first draft because you are reworking a story that you have not finished. Completing your entire manuscript is an essential step to achieve before you begin the editing process.
Writing a first draft provides you as the writer with a chance to meld your thoughts together and to further develop your ideas. It is the preliminary stage in the writing process.
Without a first draft, there’s nothing to edit. There’s no way to skip this essential step!
From Mess to Masterpiece
It's exciting to go from a blank page to typing those hard-earned words: THE END. But what happens next? Do you just begin a new project, or start over?
Answer: you edit.
Your first draft is complete when you are ready to move on to your second draft, the next phase of writing your book.
You might have met your word count goal, or written way more than you expected to. Or maybe you didn't hit your goal word count, but you did reach the end of the story (or, for a nonfiction book, the end of the content you want to include).
Regardless of how your first version of your story turned out, your second draft is the unskippable next step.
It's arguably even harder than writing the rough sketch of your book, which is what you created in your first draft.
But that doesn't mean you can't succeed.
What Does “Second Draft” Mean?
The second draft of a piece of writing is the result of one round of editing. A writer “working on a second draft” is working on a first round of edits, generally focused on structural concerns like major plot points and the flow of ideas.
A completed second draft may be a finished, publishable manuscript, but it will usually require further revision.
Editing is complex. And editing the second draft is different from writing the first draft because you already know where you are going with the story and how the story ends.
You probably already have the main three-act structure written. You’ve decided on the conflict and resolution. You have created your hero’s journey, your main characters, and the hard choices your protagonist needs to face.
You wrote your first draft.
Sure, it might be messy, and you might change some of those major elements along the way when writing the second draft. But the core of your story is already on the page.
As you edit your second draft, you will take that story and make it better.
To do this, you will read your book from start to finish and look at your book as a whole. You will consider the structure of your book and discover loopholes that need to be fixed.
It can be as simple as adding missing scenes, cutting unnecessary ones, or rewriting scenes that are not moving the story forward the way you intended.
You may even find you need to rewrite parts of your book entirely!
The Genius of Feedback
Part of the editing process is the need for another pair of eyes to read your work. As writers we are often blinded by our own thoughts. We tend to see what we mean to say, but we do not always see what our readers will be thinking when they read our works.
Getting feedback from other writers shines light on how our readers will receive what we are writing.
Here at The Write Practice, we believe in community-driven feedback and critiques. As you work on your second draft, you might find suggestions critical in fostering creative growth and stimulating ideas. It is also a great way to get into the minds of your readers.
Critique isn’t always easy to hear. It can be painful at its best, deeply wounding at its worst, and can sometimes cause lasting impact to our writing and our self-confidence.
That being said, criticism is also incredibly useful for creativity and far more effective for generating ideas than brainstorming alone.
Here’s how Berkeley psychologist Charlan Nemeth puts it:
“While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition. . . . Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating. It wakes us right up.”
Being critiqued by fellow writers prepares you for the world of literary criticism, sparks ideas that will help you make your book the best it can be, and it helps you grow as a writer.
Check out our Book Editing Checklist to see where you are in the editing process and how to get your story ready for publishing.
Should You Hire an Editor?
A lot of people wonder if they should invest in an editor. It costs money, it feels vulnerable, and you fear they may want to change your story. Does this sound about right?
There are several reasons why someone would hire an editor. Here are three important ones:
- A professional editor can offer distance and objectivity. As valuable as having peer-driven feedback is to you as a writer, it can often lead to uncertainty and confusion due to conflicting opinions.
- A professional editor will point out your weaknesses as well as your strengths. They remain objective and offer advice on how to take your story to the next level. They help improve and draw out the storyline(s).
- A professional editor will offer insight and understanding into your genre. They’ll provide feedback about the obligatory scenes and conventions in your genre to ensure your story is moving forward. This is often something that is difficult to achieve on your own.
It can be scary sending your work to an editor. Fear of judgement and rejection often worms its way through you at first.
However, a professional editor knows this and will be both honest and kind. Over time, you’ll establish a relationship with them, one that will often last through your entire writing career.
To put it in simplest terms, a professional editor is essential in helping you shape your manuscript into a story that works and is ready for publication.
How Many Drafts Does it Take to Write a Book?
The number of drafts from idea to publication looks different for every writer. However, the majority of writers will need at least three drafts to complete their story. Here’s how this can look:
- First Draft: This is also known as the discovery draft, where all writers write with the objective of getting their ideas on the page.
- Second Draft: The beginning of the editing phase. Also known as the structural edit, where you work on the global story arc, fill in the plot holes, omit and/or rewrite where needed.
- Third Draft: The proofreading phase. This is a final polish where you’ll correct things like typos and errors in grammar and spelling.
For most writers, four or even five drafts work better for developing the story and getting it ready for publication. Proofreading should always be the last stage of your editing process.
A five-draft process looks this:
- First Draft: Your discovery draft.
- Second Draft: The beginning of the editing phase. A structural edit to ensure all the essential elements are in the story.
- Third Draft: This might be a second structural edit, where you’ll refine the changes you made in the second draft.
- Fourth Draft: This line edit will focus on the line-by-line writing, cleaning up paragraphs and sentences so your ideas are as clear as possible.
- Fifth Draft: The final proofread, one last polish to fix any remaining typos or errors.
A lot of new writers don’t always have the patience to sit down and write multiple drafts. Practice makes perfect (well, maybe not perfect in this sense, but definitely better). The more you practice your craft and create a daily habit of writing, the more experienced you will become, and the easier it will be to know your writing and how to structure your story along the way.
Experienced writers might need only three or even two drafts, but that is because they’ve written so many books that story fundamentals are baked into their first draft process, almost on an unconscious level. You can get to that point by wading through the editing process and practicing your art every day.
Do you prefer writing your first draft or editing your second draft? Let us know in the comments.
Your practice for today is to spend fifteen minutes revising a piece of your writing. It might be a short story you’ve written, an excerpt of your work in progress, or even a practice you’ve shared on another Write Practice article.
Bonus points if you are revising a piece that has already been critiqued by an editor or other writers!
When you are finished, share your work in the comments. And don’t forget to comment on other writers’ revisions!
Author of Women's Fiction and Contemporary Romance.
TWP moderator and customer service manager. I build relationships and write things.