How Many Drafts do You Really Need?

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How many drafts should you have? If you turn to the all-knowing Google Search, you will more than likely end up with a lot of entries for novel writers and very little for business or marketing. That’s because when we think of drafts, we usually think of either our college essays (if we had them) or books.

This is something I’m going to fix today. If you’re a small business owner, blogger, or just starting out in copywriting or content marketing, then you need this kind of question answered, too. But especially if you’re a small business owner who’s trying to scale. 

Ultimately, you need as many drafts as it takes. But don’t fear! The better you get, the fewer you will have. 

Draft for as long and as often as it takes.

Much of writing paralysis is the result of expecting too much of ourselves the first time out.

Everybody Writes, p. I 41

Ann Handley

As with anything creative, you are the final determiner of the end product. If you did your preparation work sufficiently beforehand, then you may get away with one, maybe two drafts. If you just dove in head-first, then you will end up with more. 

Drafts allow you to evaluate your own progress as a writer, or as someone who has to write but doesn’t want to. This is enormously helpful for your own self-knowledge. Like journaling, keeping your drafts is a journal of your professional work. It’s a way for you to go back and look at your piece from beginning to end and pat yourself on the back. 

Because if you can see improvement this way, you can see an improvement in other areas of your life and work. Multiple drafts are a measurement tool in themselves. And if you’re in business, the KPIs and bottom line are everything. 

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You need at least one draft, but you must be well-prepared before writing it.

One-draft writing is where you edit as you go and you interrupt the flow of your writing to edit. Getting it just right on the first try is rare. If you have prepared to write before starting, then it’s possible. 

This is what Peter Elbow in Writing With Power calls “the dangerous method.” This works best for short pieces, such as a quick “thank you” email or an acknowledgement you’ve received something. You have to use a lot of intentional brain power to make it work for longer pieces. 

For something more creative, like a blog post or report, this method rarely works well unless you’ve already prepared your research, thoughts, and don’t need a lot of formatting. 

That, and it’s just impractical. What if you’re working on a team of people creating a marketing campaign? You need drafts and several of them so that the entire team is on the same page. 

If you’re strapped for time, try a different method instead.

The direct writing process is most useful if you have little time or if you have plenty to say about your topic. It’s a kind of let’s-get-this-thing-over-with writing process.

Writing With Power, p. 28

Peter Elbow

A more pragmatic way of writing is called “the direct writing process” in Elbow’s book. Essentially, you set a time limit, determined by your deadline, divide that time in half and then use one half for writing and the other half for editing. That first half is your drafting process and you write with as few stops as possible. 

Whatever you do, don’t stop to edit. And if you must stop to change your train of thought, do so but cross nothing out. Yet. You’re basically trying to interrupt your output as little as possible. 

If you are flying solo and all the writing is up to you, this is an excellent method. 

Also, this allows you the unusual freedom to make mistakes and not have to correct them right away. 

Speaking of…

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Embrace your mistakes so you can fix them.

Rule III Don’t Hide Unwanted Things in the Fog

Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life

Jordan Peterson

When I worked for Sephora inside JC Penney years ago, we had what we called the “Plus/Delta” system for feedback. Positives were your “pluses” and they always gave you them first. What you needed to improve was called a Delta or a “gift of change.” Your mistakes are a gift in this way of thinking—not a mark against you. 

Your draft process is a chance for you to embrace your mistakes. And you will have a lot of mistakes some days, even if you have decades of experience under your belt. But the more you know your mistakes, the better you can either correct them, work around them, or avoid them in the future. 

Jordan Peterson’s advice in Rule III of Beyond Order fits this way of thinking perfectly. While Peterson’s point is that hiding unwanted emotions, mistakes, or vices only gives them more power, I can say the same for something as seemingly innocuous as a grammar mistake. Or a spelling error. 

Because even minor mistakes like those, if avoided, can lead to some atrocious habits. What else will you avoid analyzing? Perhaps it will be the topic you choose the next time, or some critical feedback. Perhaps you’re even hiding from the truth that you can’t do it all anymore and you need to either start building a team or hire some help. 

That’s a hard concept to embrace if you’re a perfectionist. It’s hard to embrace even if you are a normal person but are trained to think that any time you mess up, it’s a symptom of an evil nature in you. In reality, you are doing yourself a favor by acknowledging your limits. 

That, and I can’t think of anyone who actually enjoys being wrong. If you do, then let me know. 

Can’t I just use an outline?

This is a rhetorical question because, of course, you can use an outline. In fact, if you are working in a creative team, writing a book series, or writing for a client, you should use an outline. But an outline does not replace a draft. 

Outlines are there as a guide. They are NOT a draft. In your outline, you assemble the information you will use in your final output, be that a project proposal, blog post, article, novel, or school paper. You get to see what the final project will be at a glace so that your team, client, or literary agent can tell where you are going with your thoughts and provide feedback before you’ve taken the trouble to flesh out the subject. 

Incidentally, if you take any kind of course on UX basics, such as UX Foundations: Information Architecture on LinkedIn Learning, you’ll discover it’s almost the same as outlining. You are grouping like topics together so that your audience will get all the information they need for that topic in one place. 

But the outline itself is still just a skeleton. A draft will allow you to put flesh on. 

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Ok, so how long will this really take?

I’ve had blog posts take anywhere from 4 hours to 48 hours total to draft and edit. I’ve had project proposals that took weeks–months to perfect. Do you know what I’ve found? 

The better I was prepared mentally, the easier it was to turn out a final product and the few drafts I ended up writing. I’ve also found the posts that came together the most easily were the ones I had spent significant amounts of idle time writing, freewriting, or thinking about the topic beforehand. 

So, when you are creating your draft, give yourself, your team, or your freelancer enough time to think about what you want the final product to look like, read like, and feel like. The more specific you are before your write and the clearer the vision, the better the outcome will be. 

Ultimately, the more you write, the faster it will become. The better you prepare, the less likely you will spend weeks on a mediocre post. also, remember that thing about owning your mistakes? Yeah, that helps too. 

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