The Curse of Rewrites: How Many Drafts is Too Many?


There is one manuscript that I know I will never publish. I rewrote it once every year for six years. Those sequential drafts say a great deal about how I developed as a nascent writer, and the most recent one isn’t half bad.

But I will never publish that manuscript.

Somewhere along the line – maybe it was year three or four – the story became unmanageable. I can no longer see it for its merits and failings. Instead, I glimpse its history, how it grew and changed over the years and how I grew and changed with it. I could look at this manuscript as a failure, but I like to think about what it taught me.

The greatest lesson it gave was that there is such a thing as too many drafts. There is a such thing as too many rewrites.

Many authors suffer the curse of perfectionism. We strive to make our writing ever better, to choose the most sublime phrasing, to ensure that our characters breathe. This attention to detail can result in magnificent masterpieces that readers adore and keep on their shelves for decades. It can also cause paralysis, or in my case, the desire to write a thousand iterations of the same story.

At some point, we have to decide that a draft is good enough. Is that draft perfect? No, of course it isn’t. Regardless, we have to find a way to be proud of the works that we put out into the world even with all their flaws. Now I often restrict my number of potential rewrites – the final version must be finished by July 2017 for example – and that keeps me on task and prevents me from changing the same set of words sixteen times. Having an agent, a publisher, or an eager audience searching for that next work can also help motivate writers to finish a work.

It can be extraordinarily difficult to put written works into the world, but I make it easier for myself by remembering that editing a manuscript for too long can kill a story. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I’m glad I know it now.

Six drafts may be too many for me, but I’m sure the number differs for other writers. Whatever that number is for you, I think it is important to know your own limits and be able to ride the fine line of editing enough without completely shredding a story. After all, rewrites may be grand, but having a completed manuscript is grander.


Image Attribution: Sala capitolare di Santa Felicita, Niccolo Gerini, ca. 1390

22 thoughts on “The Curse of Rewrites: How Many Drafts is Too Many?

  1. I tend to stick with two drafts and a third mini-draft that is just for adding little details I may not have noticed before. I think another trick is not to let a story sit around too long because you start the lose the urgency of what you were originally trying to say.

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  2. I have a novel I’ll never publish for two reasons. One is the number of rewrites, the other is that my writing has developed in a different direction. I put hundreds and hundreds of hours into it but I look on it as a learning and development exercise. The only way to become a better writer is to keep writing and learning from mistakes.

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  3. Thanks for another of your very insightful posts! I do not usually have too many drafts. I tend to have one or two and then poof! The end is near. Haha.

    I do not know where to properly say this but then as I saw this amazing post of yours, I might just say this here.
    Thanks for liking my “Cowards who loved”. It was my first 2POV story and your previous post helped me improve it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I need more ‘poof, the end is near’ moments in my writing! That is a great way to describe it.

      I always like reading other people’s work, so I’ll be keeping an eye on your stories. I’m glad some of my posts may have helped with them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha. I am sure you’d have them. And, thanks. 🙂

        They have ! Especially to someone like me new to this kind of media and to writing short stories (as I am more of a poet) but I am expanding my horizons and your posts are helping, immensely.
        I love reading your blogs too.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post and I agree that too many drafts is a bad idea. Perfection is impossible, and eventually instead of making a story better, we’re just making it different. I do eight drafts with a specific objective for each pass. When I’m through all eight drafts, it’s about as good as it’s going to get and off it goes for a final look by someone else’s fresh eyes. A few edits based on the feedback and it’s done :-).

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  5. Interesting subject. Unlike most writers (I suppose), I edit/rewrite as I write. I typically go back over the past day’s work, reading it carefully, and rewriting as needed before moving on to that day’s work. This works for me. As the storyline/plot develops, I might go back however many pages and rewrite a certain passage again to “fit” a new path or direction the story takes. When I finally type “The End” I usually have a very good first draft. I’ll then go back through the story again, making necessary changes/corrections or rewriting awkward sentences, etc. The manuscript usually doesn’t involve a lot of “doctoring” using this method.
    I’ve read about so many writers who rush through an entire first draft to get the story down, and then go back to the beginning and began an extensive rewrite (and subsequent rewrites). That just doesn’t work for me. I need to get things ironed out as I go along. I’m sure it takes me much longer to have that first draft in hand, but as I said before, it’s usually pretty polished.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard a few other writers say that they edit the day’s work immediately, but I do think that you all are in the minority. (Or perhaps the rest of us just speak too loudly.) It sounds like your method offers a great way for you to stay on track, remain productive, and create a solid final product, which is fabulous! I suspect this system works exceptionally well for writers who have a very good idea of how their plots will develop. Meanderers could still have extensive rewrites at the end of draft one.

      Regardless, thanks for sharing your methodology! I may have to try it someday and see how it works for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Mm. That ever-present looming point of ‘enough is enough’ and I’m really worried I might be getting close to that point, which scares me. I want to finish this book. I want this book published. I want people to read it, but… maybe it won’t be the first book I publish. Maybe it won’t be good enough for the world. Maybe it’s just too… convoluted and broken. That’s harsh for a writer to hear, but the sooner we stop working on one book, the sooner we can work on another, better one. ^.^

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    1. Enough has to happen eventually! Many people don’t end up publishing their first manuscript, but sometimes we writers are too intimately attached to our works to be able to assess them well. If you haven’t done so already, you might want to have someone with a critical eye take a look at your piece. It may not be as broken as you think.

      Either way you’re right that the sooner one book is finished, the sooner we can create other worlds. There is something beautiful about that, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah yes. I have done that. A couple times. I thought it was ready, but got horrible responses/no responses from agents. So, I set it aside for like… 3-4 months. That second look was SUCH an eye-opener! 0.0 I think this will end up being my last go around with this book, though. If it’s not good enough, then I have other projects to devote my time to. ^.^

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You have such a great perspective about this! That is a great way to look at it.

        Regardless, if you end up publishing either your old project or your new, I hope you’ll let everyone know. I’d love to take a peek at it someday!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I wrote 400 pages of my first novel, chucked it, and started over in a different voice with fewer characters. That draft got to 220,000 words. Over two years I whittled it down, and down, and along the way it got good. I was learning to write, as it turned out. Now to start the next book with all the things I learned not to do, not done! So your book might still get to be a book. But if your book never becomes a book, but in the effort you learn what you need to write and finish other books, that’s good too.

    Liked by 1 person

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