Today’s question comes from @writer_gem (she/her) on Twitter, who asks:
what’s a finished draft?
This simple four-word question may lead to a 1000-word post. Let’s find out!
First, let’s dispense with the idea of there being any objective measure of a draft being done. Even if you’re writing a 100-word drabble, a sonnet, or something else with a defined form, you’re probably not done drafting the first time you meet the basic criteria of that form. You’re done drafting when you feel done, when you feel ready to move on to revising.
This leads to asking what the fundamental difference is between drafting and revising, since there can be a lot of overlap. Again, I think it’s a matter of mindset. Drafting is about creating; more than that, it’s about coming to understand the core structure of the work. Sometimes, especially with longer pieces, I feel like drafting is creating a block of marble and revising is carving a statue out of it; other times, drafting is creating an instrument and revising is playing a melody on it. It can help to have the hypothetical shape of the finished work in mind while you draft, since you want to create a draft that can lead to that finished work, but your first responsibility is to make something that has a degree of internal cohesion and order, which is what will make the finished form possible. Drafting is engineering and construction. Revision is art and design. So there is another benchmark: the draft is done when it feels like something solid and well-constructed that a finished work can be made from.
If you don’t trust your gut, that will make this decision process much harder. Practice helps, as always. The more you write, the more you will get a feel for when a draft is complete and ready to be revised. Until then, it’s a good idea to save copies of your drafts when you think it’s revision time, so that if you turn out to be wrong and your work still needs some pretty fundamental construction, you can just go back to the draft and keep building on it.
Revising before the draft is ready is one possible failure mode; another is never believing or admitting that it’s ready. You might find yourself writing way more text than you need, or doing tiny word tweaks but not quite committing to full-on revisions. You may just hate the revision process, as necessary as it is. If you suspect you might be putting off revisions, you can hold yourself to a limited wordcount, or set a deadline by which you will consider the draft complete, or enlist the help of a friend or critique partner to help you decide when the draft is a draft.
A final hallmark of a completed draft is feeling you’ve said all you have to say on a topic. I think I’ve reached that point with this one, so I shall close here. I’d love to hear from you in comments—when do you think a draft is finished, or how do you know that it is?
Happy drafting and revising!