How many drafts does it take to finish a book?

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My clients are mostly mid-career experts writing a book anchored in their expertise. They need three or four full drafts before the manuscript is ready to go to a professional editor. But that’s not the whole story.

How the Drafts Lay Out

For most of the books that I work on, the first draft gets most of the important information down. It also exposes areas where we need more content and areas where we can do a better job of presentation. The first draft also is the one that gives you an idea what the red threads and through-lines are for the book.

The second draft builds on the first draft. We may change some things around in the order of presentation. We add content to improve the first draft. We improve the references and important through-lines that run through the entire book.

The third draft brings everything together. When we finish the third draft, we’re pretty sure we’ve got all the important parts in the right order. We’re pretty sure we’ve identified the through-lines and references.

Now we come to a branch in the road. I recommend that every author engage beta readers at this point to get outside perspective on their manuscript. Not every author I work with chooses to do that.

If we don’t use beta readers, then a final, fourth draft tightens up things in the third draft. We send the fourth draft off to a professional editor.

If the book goes out to beta readers, their comments determine what happens next. Sometimes, we need to make a lot of small changes. We do that in the fourth draft. Off it goes to the professional editor.

Sometimes, though, the beta readers highlight something important that we’ve missed. Perhaps they want to know something that we haven’t even discussed. Perhaps they want more detail on certain points. When that happens, the fourth draft incorporates those changes. Then we send the manuscript out to the beta readers again to see what they have to say.

Beta reader feedback may result in several reevaluation loops, which means more drafts. Usually, they aren’t a complete rewrite of the manuscript, just lots of work on specific areas. Once we’ve got it right, the manuscript goes off to a professional editor.

One More Thing

Don’t think of writing a draft as a simple straight through process. Usually, some chapters need more work than others. There are usually multiple revisions to important chapters along the way.

Bottom Line

Most nonfiction books need three or four drafts before the manuscript goes to a professional editor. Some books need more than that.

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