There are no right answers here, but the true answer to the question ‘how many drafts should I expect to write’ is ‘probably more than you think!’
In this post, I talk about a typical draft process, for me and for other people I write with and work with. Consider this a typology rather than an exact blueprint that you must follow to do good work!
Reading, note taking, conceptualising, understanding, talking about it with your supervisor, doing experiments or case studies, problem solving, planning. These are often rehearsals for drafts.
- First shitty draft (also called a ‘zero draft’ [even though it’s number two on my list… told you it was a typology not an exact blueprint!])
There are some words on a page, more of the word count than less, and there is most of a beginning, much of a middle and some of the end in it; you know what is missing and can work out how to fill it in.
This draft is often not done into your Word Processor. You might type into a notes app, speak into voice recognition software, record yourself, write by hand, type into your phone—or do a mixture.
Sometimes this draft shows your plan or concept isn’t going to work, or there are significant issues with your ideas and research, so you may need to discard a couple of these before you get text that is worth taking to the next level.
- Other genres of writing
Lots of people start with a conference paper, a poster presentation, a lecture, or try to turn a thesis chapter into an article (as Wendy Belcher recommends in her book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks). Unfortunately the fact that the work was passable and went through so many drafts doesn’t mean you can skip straight to a good draft in its new form. They are still only a starting point and will need significant rewriting!
- Rough draft.
A rough draft is almost the whole word count, all the sections are there but not necessarily in the right order; spelling, grammar and style issues still present; footnotes probably still messy.
To get from point 2 or 3, you will typically have to do quite a bit of rewriting. This is the stage you will almost always be in your word processing software (Word, Scrivener or LateX), and you should start using your bibliographic software systematically here.
- Clean draft
You are pretty much at the word count, errors corrected, the whole draft is tidied up, structure is logical and signposted. All the bibliographic entries and references are correct.
Never show anyone your writing before this stage—and for picky supervisors who get caught up in minute issues of style, probably not even then. This is often the right stage to share with collaborators or to send to supervisors to show your working.
- Good draft
The draft is now tightened up, extraneous matter cut; phrasing is effective, the words are good words; the introduction is powerful and the conclusion strong, the argument builds convincingly; figures and text nicely formatted, every aspect of the correct scholarly style (APA, Chicago etc) is checked against the guide; the title and subtitle are now both attractive and descriptive.
You should show this to your supervisor.
- Submittable draft
Having got extensive feedback and had some time to get some critical distance from the work, you go back and work on it some more. You should expect to need to do further tightening, rephrasing, clarifying, formatting, error checking etc. You can hand this in for examination or for peer review. You can also present this work at a progress hurdle meeting.
If your ‘good’ or ‘submittable’ draft needs to incorporate significant new material or do major restructuring, you will probably have to go back to Clean, Good and Submittable draft stages, again. Make sure you have time for that!
Okay so now you have submitted the work. Does that mean your revisions are done? (Possibly not!)
- Passable work
When it’s worth a PhD, possibly after a further round of revisions.
Minor revisions: usually means going back to the ‘submittable’ stage and doing further small corrections (up to 3 months, but may only take one day!)
Major revisions usually requires returning to ‘clean’ or ‘good’ draft stages for sections of the work and then getting it back up to ‘submittable’ (might take 6 months).
A complete rewrite (up to 12 months) will mean returning to ‘clean’ or ‘good’ drafts stages for much or most of the thesis.
- Publishable work
After peer review, possibly multiple rounds, plus further edits and copy editing rounds, plus professional typesetting, the work is suitable to be published in a scholarly journal or book.
Trying to minimise the number of drafts you write made more sense before people wrote theses on their own personal computer. If you try to skip a draft stage, you are just composing and storing that draft in your head, which is much more effort and usually much slower than doing it on paper. (Though a zero draft of a small section is sometimes worth doing this way.)
Of course many academics and candidates do try to write perfectly the first time. They also tell me they find writing difficult and stressful, and experience suggests writing this way makes you more likely to face progress challenges, and to produce good drafts much more slowly. (I’m not saying it’s wrong to write with fewer drafts, but you aren’t being more efficient or a better writer.) It also makes you more likely to resent the many further drafts required to pass or be published.
6-12 drafts seems horrific when you are in the throes of your first draft! But rest assured that not all drafts take the same amount of time. For a recent academic book chapter, I probably had 4 rounds of edits between the editor’s comments and the final galley proofs (rounds 9-12). The very first draft of the chapter had taken me months, but no set of these last edits took more than 25 minutes, and some only took 3-5 minutes (to review and approve a small change in formatting for the figures for example, or add in another reference).
I really hope this is helpful and encouraging! I often only wrote one draft as an undergraduate… but as I’ve become a more experienced and published writer, the number of drafts I need to plan for has increased. Getting to be a better writer has not led to me needing less editing!