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I've been reading a few questions on this site, and I've seen the terms First, Second or Third Drafts. What does this refer to actually? And could someone give a clear detail of what they are, and why specifically three drafts?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

A "draft" is one complete pass-through of writing a piece (an article, blog post, short story, novella, novel, etc.).

Your "first draft" is generally considered the first time you commit the entire thing to paper (or pixels), from beginning to end.

After that, you can measure subsequent drafts or rounds however you like. It's reasonable to divide them as "one round of writing plus one round of editing equals one draft," but there's no ironclad rule. (I'm defining "a round" as going through from beginning to end until you're satisfied with the corrections you want to make, and you're ready either to hand it to someone else to see or to start from the beginning again.)

The first draft of almost anything is usually lousy because you're focused on building and iterating your ideas. Subsequent rounds (particularly with feedback of others) allow you to develop characters, polish your turns of phrase, fix plot holes, and cut out unnecessary scenes.

There's nothing magical about three drafts, or any other number of drafts. The writers who churn out several books a year I'm sure go through only a few drafts, while Mercedes Lackey famously rewrote her first trilogy seventeen times before the three books published.

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let me just add usually if you're at 4th or 5th draft and still not satisfied, usually subsequent ones will only make things worse. –  SF. Oct 27 '13 at 21:58
    
@SF. My thought would be that if you aren't satisfied at that point, it means there's a major problem to fix. If you can't find it on your own, you need another set of eyes to find it for you. So yes, subsequent drafts would make it worse if you aren't addressing whatever the problem is. –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 28 '13 at 0:38
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If you're on you're 4th or 5th draft and you're fundamentally unhappy with the work as a whole, that's very different from you're on your 4th or 5th draft and you realize there's a problem in the transition between chapter 6 and chapter 7 and the character of "Amy" is poorly developed. If you've made several drafts and you are not happy with the overall document, you have to make a decision: was this an idea that just didn't work out and you should just abandon it rather than waste yet more time; or is it a fundamentally good idea and you just need to attack it from a different angle? –  Jay Oct 28 '13 at 17:39
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Dittos to Lauren Ipsum. I'd add: Don't get hung up over how many drafts to write, or whether a given set of changes is sufficient to call this a new draft. I can't imagine any value in agonizing over whether you are presently on your 4th draft or your 5th. There's no rule that says you have to make revisions all over the document with every pass. It's perfectly legitimate to make 20 drafts of chapter 4 while not worrying about chapters 3 or 5 yet. Just keep working on the document until you're happy with it.

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