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How Many Drafts Does it Take to Write a Book?

Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Writing drafts is a process of discovery

You know, Michael Bungay Stanier didn’t write his elegant book The Coaching Habit in one draft. Or two. Or three. He wrote multiple drafts. In fact, he presented the book with multiple angles and in multiple structures to Workman Publishing, who had published his previous book Do More Great Work (that sold hundreds of thousands of copies) but to no avail.

Finally, after many attempts at getting his book published, Michael took matters into his own hands, hired his own publishing team, and published The Coaching Habit with his own Box of Crayons Press.

Even a book as “seemingly” simple and straight-forward as the trade nonfiction book The Coaching Habit written by a keen-witted Oxford chap, required not just multiple drafts but also multiple angles and approaches.

If you feel lost in starting or finishing your book – or even your first draft – you might think you’re inadequate, ignorant, or untalented because you can’t “figure it all out” and then just write.

Or, if you’re a risk-averse entrepreneur wanting to write a book, you might hope you can analyze the market, whip up an outline, just write it, pitch it, sell, it, publish it and assure your ROI. And if you can’t do that, again, you might think there’s some secret knowledge you’re missing that is keeping you from figuring out the perfect book business plan to take you from zero to 6 or 7 figures in a year.

In either case, drafting to discover is indispensable.

Drafting to discover is a way of writing based on the fact that drafting itself helps you think and clarify what you think.

If you’re writing a trade nonfiction book that presents your key principles of a small business growth, then drafting itself helps you discover the right voice on the page that lands with your targeted audience.

Authors who draft to discover

By deliberate drafting to discover, Kay Larson kept re-discovering the essential structure and Story line that made a breakthrough book of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen, and the Artist’s Inner Life (Penguin Press) – this is a book Maria Popova of BrainPickings considers “it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating most absorbing book I’ve read in the past year, if not decade.”

I worked with Kay from the conception of this book through to it’s final publication in my author’s mentorship program, Your Captivating Book.

Peter and Jamy Faust also kept re-discovering how to integrate their years of knowledge and teaching into a compelling book in The Constellation Approach: Finding Peace Through Your Family Lineage (Regents Press).

If you’re writing a memoir, drafting helps you discover the key Story that will give shape to your memories and experiences.

Cheryl Strayed didn’t know the story that drives Wild: Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage) until several drafts in.

Julie Metz discovered several drafts in her voice and elements of the central characters that helped make her memoir Perfection a New York Times best-seller.

If you’re writing a novel, drafting itself helps you discover subtle threads, themes, motifs. It helps you discover more about your characters.

George Fehling kept discovering more and more about his novel’s protagonist Amariah the more he drafted the riveting novel Dark Peak.

In all cases, drafting itself also helps you discover what you do not know about your nonfiction subject, your memoir’s key character (who likely shares your name), or your novel’s story arc.

You can find ways to wander deliberately. You can begin by listing questions and writing into one question at a time. You can begin by drafting to discover one piece of your book at a time. One hour at a time. One page at a time. Do that four times a week, and you will have your first 100 pages before you know it. At your first 100 pages, you’ll have considerably more perspective on where your book might be going.

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  1. I was fascinated by the idea of “discovering” the story line through drafting. Countless times, I’ve written something, thinking I wasn’t getting to the point, or that my story was missing something. That caused me to get frustrated and quit. Now, realizing that the very act of writing helps to uncover & develop my story, I will push through the mental blocks by asking questions of myself (in the draft) to move my plot forward. Thanks for presenting this article… it’s definitely shifted my perception of how I can write with greater ease going forward.

  2. Timely. Just when I thought I was getting tired of writing my characters, I found that I had more to learn about them. The living in between and during drafts availed those lessons.

  3. This article was timely and spot on. It serves to further validate my personal thoughts on “why” it has taken me so long to complete my memoir (of 10 years). Now, of course, there are various reasons as to why this has happened and in this way. However, I am grateful for the complete process of drafting, discovering, deliberating, even denying those critical developments that were and have become the glue to my story. It was in those moments that I decided to be brave, be bold, embrace clarity. I recommend writers to adjust as many drafts as needed. Because I gave myself time, turned off the stopwatch, focused on the meaning of the story and why it was being written in the first place and for WHOM, the road ahead (for this project) is now laced with brutal honesty, light and redemption.