What Exactly Is a Rough Draft?

This is an interesting question to me. I find that people have different opinions of what a rough draft actually is. Many of my college students struggle with this question, many believing it’s a page with a brief summary of an idea. But they are writing argumentative essays.

But even writers, the people who understand writing and love to write, have different opinions about what a rough draft is. Is it a brief outline of the story? Is it a long, detailed outline? Is it the barebones of the story? James Patterson stated in his masterclass that this is what he does. He writes the bare bones, the skeleton of the story and then his writers write the full novel.

To me an outline is an outline. A rough draft is the novel in various stages of development. Even when it’s close to being finished and almost ready to send to the publisher, it’s still a rough draft.

But it doesn’t matter what it is to me; every author is entitled to his or how definition of what a rough draft is.

What’s important and what we should all agree on is that the rough draft is not the novel. It’s simply a plan or the potential of what the novel will be.

We can use many analogies, but cooking is the easiest to picture, I think. If you’re making a cake and you add all the ingredients, the flour, the sugar, the baking powder, the butter and eggs and so on, you do not have a cake. All the right ingredients are in there, but without the last, final step of baking, you have nothing. The final step is what makes it a cake.

Our rough drafts continue to be rough drafts until we add the final edits that make it a novel. It doesn’t matter if all the right ingredients of plot and character and setting are in there if the story has not been edited and polished to the point that it becomes a finished book.

The Planning Stage

So, during drafting — and there may be many rough drafts depending on how much revision is needed, we are still planning. People with outlines are following the planned outline. People who like to write and discover the story as it develops are planning the novel as they write.

The important thing to remember is that during the drafting and planning stages, nothing is permanent. It’s like a piece of clay that can be squeezed and reshaped. I’ve taken characters completely out. I’ve changed the POV from third person to first person. Sometimes this even happened during edit #4 when I was getting close to being finished, but I had the sense that something was wrong, and the story wasn’t flowing well so I reshaped and re-envision the story, still planning the book.

Something else to remember is that rough drafts do not have to be perfect. They are works in progress. This means that it doesn’t matter what the character’s name is. That can be changed later. It doesn’t matter that there may be spelling and grammatical errors in the early drafts. That will be fixed.

Ann Lamont in Bird by Bird writes about the shitty first drafts. She states that first drafts will be bad, so advises not to obsess about it being perfect. The point is to get the first draft finished, so we need to give ourselves permission to write poorly at first.

In later versions of the story, we can address the issues in the first rough draft. Since I print my drafts and edit with a pen, I have rough drafts labeled, rough draft #1, rough draft #2, rough draft #3, and so on. After each edit, I will also have files on my computer for each rough draft.

The Polishing Stage

With each re-write the rough drafts become less rough. We enter the stage of polishing instead of planning. When there is nothing left to add or change, we are polishing it, playing with language or grammar, fixing the little things. I have changed names at this point because I didn’t like them. For one novel, I had a character named Scott. At the time, Scott Peterson who killed his pregnant wife in San Diego was in the news continuously. I found that I couldn’t type the name without thinking of that guy. So, I changed his name. Easy fix.

The polishing stage may take just as long as the planning stage. Getting the draft ready for publication is as important and writing the draft in the first place. Don’t rush through this part thinking that the novel is finished.

This is that baking of the cake stage. This is where the rough ingredients become the cake. You are looking at the draft closely, changing only the minor things that sometimes make a huge difference because the story becomes a tightly written novel that flows beautifully from chapter to chapter.

Rough drafts are wonderful because they are the places to experiment and make mistakes. They are the drafts that no one sees, not even our agents or editors. Rough drafts show progress as the story transforms from an idea to a fully finished story. My son once asked me how many times I revise my novel. I said that it depended. Sometimes three. Sometimes ten. He got a horrified look on his face and said, “No wonder you’re always so miserable.”

I had to laugh because he was wrong. Each draft I write makes me happier because I know that I’m that much closer to being finished.

Have a story to tell? Want to learn how to record personal experiences before they’re lost or write a novel? Let started by downloading for free Julia Amante’s “Free Your Story” framework.

Women’s Fiction author of That Was Then, Say You’ll Be Mine, and Evenings at the Argentine Club. Speaker and and teacher. https://www.facebook.com/juliaamante/

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