How to Finish Your Book in Three Drafts

A pen resting on a blank journal page.

Note from Jane: Today’s post is adapted from Finish Your Book in Three Drafts by Stuart Horwitz (@book_arch).

Have you ever asked yourself while writing, “How many drafts is this going to take?” That may seem like a question that can’t have an answer, but I would like to propose that it does. And that answer is three. Three drafts, provided that each draft is approached in the right spirit and we take the time we need between drafts.

Some writers assume that the difference between a first draft and a final draft is a few revisions and a solid copy edit. What I am talking about here is a process that requires more patience.

It probably already makes intuitive sense to you that you can’t work on more than one draft at a time. But here is the mantra for the process as a whole:

Know what draft you’re in.

Each draft plays by different rules, and knowing what draft you’re in can help you avoid writer’s block.

There is a literary myth that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in one draft—one Benzedrine- and marijuana-fueled draft—over a twenty-one-day period. It is true that he created a 120-foot roll of paper so that he wouldn’t have to stop to feed more paper into his typewriter, and wrote one of his drafts that way. But it turns out that he was working from a draft he already had in his journals. Also, if you look at that typewriter scroll closely, you can see all kinds of corrections; those corrections are, in effect, his third draft.

Three drafts, not one. Also: three drafts, not forty-nine. You may have heard this cute story about Oscar Wilde: His host asked him how his writing was going, and he said, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma.” “And in the afternoon?” “In the afternoon—well, I put it back in again.” That doesn’t count as a draft. What you are trying to do is tackle your book, not tinker with it. Because—are you ready?—the point is not to go through life writing the same book the whole time.

We’ll call the first draft the messy draft, which is all about getting it down. We’ll call the second draft the method draft, which is all about making sense. And we’ll call the third draft the polished draft, which is all about making it good. We could also call the third draft the design draft if you are publishing independently or the agent draft if you are seeking traditional publication.

The Messy Draft

You may have heard that there is this debate about who has a better way to write between pantsers and outliners. A pantser is someone who, as the name suggests, writes by the seat of his or her pants. An outliner, on the other hand, is someone who meticulously crafts every writing session.

This isn’t a real debate, by the way, because we are all both of these at different times. Even the most ardent pantsers are bound to somehow keep track of where they are going next and what they have already accomplished, while even the most rigorous outliners get surprised when they sit at their desks and discover something about their books that they didn’t already know. There’s an interplay between outlining and pantsing, and while every writer is different, I suggest that you create the messy draft by pantsing.

I have heard that writers need permission to “pants,” probably from the outliner side of them, which likes to make plans but can’t bring itself to start. It also helps if you trust that there will be a method for sifting out the repetitions and for strengthening the foundations between the first draft and the second draft. That is what the method draft is all about.

A perfect first draft covers the ground. A perfect first draft tries material out. A perfect first draft makes a start in a lot of places. A perfect first draft familiarizes you with your material—or, at least, the portion of it that is available to your conscious mind. Successive drafts will fill that reservoir further, deepen your understanding of what you are doing, and enable you to tighten connections and layer in nuances.

In sum, disorganization is an excellent sign. It means that you haven’t picked a subject that is too easy and that your conclusions aren’t too pat. You are allowing the drafting process to accomplish something big and organic. Keep writing the first draft, and keep being okay when it feels like a mess.

The Method Draft

The method draft is to outlining as the messy draft was to pantsing. I have heard some pantsers refer to outlining as their Kryptonite. That’s a pretty strong statement, but I think I understand where that nervous apprehension comes from. For pantsers, it is writing from scratch that brings the purest joy. After that, they may recognize the efficacy of getting—and staying—organized, but that is paired with the instinctual fear that their favorite part of the process is behind them.

By outline, here I am referring to any class of graphs, lists, or diagrams—or, if you are familiar with my work, grids, targets, and arcs. You can think of outlining, at this point, as creating a map of a territory you are just discovering; just because you know the soundings of where you can land a boat, that doesn’t mean you know the interior geography of the country. When something is mapped out completely, it may lose its mystique, but I don’t think you run the risk of that just between a first draft and a second draft.

There are many types of exercises you can complete during the method draft (and I recommend many in my book). What matters is that you harness the right method-draft attitudes, beginning with taking the word rewriting out of your vocabulary. That is not what you are doing; you are revising, re-visioning your work as you complete a second draft.

Just as you got permission to write a draft that was messy, and just as you got permission to stop writing, give yourself permission to write a method draft knowing that you are going to get some of it wrong. You are also going to get some of it startlingly right.

The Polished Draft

When the time comes to create the third and final draft of your work, the polished draft, it is time to find other people you can trust and ask them for their input—regardless of whether you go in the directions they suggest.

For now you don’t want just any feedback—you want constructive, motivating, eye-opening feedback to help you prepare for your third and final draft, the polished draft. Well, that’s the way it’s supposed to work, anyway. This is where you call on beta readers—individuals who read your work before it is finished and offer you feedback.

Throughout the three-draft process, you have had questions. Some of those questions have since resolved themselves; some of them didn’t turn out to be questions at all. And some of those questions you still have.

The beta-reader questionnaire is a vehicle for you to ask those remaining questions. You need to phrase these questions carefully to receive the greatest benefit from your beta readers.

For content questions, you can ask my favorite:

  • What scenes do you remember the best?

Or any of these variations:

  • Did any character strike you as particularly memorable?
  • Were any of the characters too over the top (i.e., memorable in a bad way)?
  • Did you particularly identify with any one character’s opinions? Which one, and how?

Most content questions, thus, are really “more or less” questions:

  • Less violence?
  • More sex?
  • Did you have any questions that weren’t answered adequately by the current manuscript?

You can also ask questions that address the issues of pace and structure. These questions are a great way to get ideas about your manuscript, as well as ideas for your manuscript.

  • Did any sections of the manuscript feel underdeveloped?
  • Which parts did you want to skip?
  • Where did you feel there was an emotional payoff?
  • Did the answers to your questions come later than you were looking for them?

When I gather feedback from all beta readers, I compile the responses that resonate and start putting together a punch list for my final draft.

I try to make this list as comprehensive as possible. No sense mailing it in. If an idea is legitimately a good one, I have every intention of weaving it in. If an idea is legitimately a bad one, I try to remember that polished-draft mantra:

Make decisions.

The cover for Finish Your Book in Three DraftsWhen the time comes to write the polished draft, I recommend hopping around the manuscript. The first draft you did in whatever order it came to you. The second draft you definitely want to write straight through, as you use your series to change stuff around. But in the third draft you can go anywhere the day is calling.

For more from Stuart Horwitz, check out Finish Your Book in Three Drafts.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice and tagged , , , .

As founder and principal of Book Architecture, Stuart has spent over fifteen years helping writers become authors. Book Architecture’s clients have reached the bestseller list in both fiction and nonfiction, and have appeared on Oprah!, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and in the most prestigious journals in their respective fields.

Stuart is an award-winning essayist and poet, who has taught writing at Grub Street of Boston and Brown University. He holds two masters degrees—one in Literary Aesthetics from NYU, which helps him a lot with this work—and one in East Asian Studies from Harvard with a concentration in Medieval Japanese Buddhism, which helps him get out of bed in the morning. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife and two daughters.

Join the conversation

18 Comment threads
9 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
9 Comment authors
Editing Tips and Resources for AuthorsCarnival of Creativity 7/31/16 | The Writing ReaderLinks Lasso – June | Exploring Your DepthsElizabeth VaradanHow to Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: Don’t. | Katie Staten Recent comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest oldest most voted
Notify of

[…] Stuart Horwitz explains how you can complete your book in three drafts: the messy draft, the method draft, and the polished draft.  […]

Rebekah Love Dorris

This is the answer I have sought like crazy lately. Thank you for being the one to flip on the light switch so I can finally buckle down and get this baby finished!

God bless 🙂


This is great advise as I am in my second draft of my first ever novel. So far I have been doing mostly as you have suggested. I had plans of a questionnaire, and now that you have covered it here, I will most definitely include this element in my process of completing the book. Thanks for the great advise.

Deanna Cabinian

Great article. I wish I had understood this concept years ago. I laughed out loud at the draft 49 part. Thankfully I have a much better handle on this now!


[…] How to Finish Your Book in Three Drafts […]

Michael Romkey

Interesting structure to hang onto the process. I love the idea of using beta readers after the “method” draft. I’ll have to try that.

Ann Stephens

As a plot-pants hybrid, I have to say this method sounds intriguing. I’ve never written a fully messy draft, and I don’t know if I can (I’m enough of a plotter to want a map of the story when I type ‘Chapter 1’), but I’d like to try a bent-for-leather fast draft.


Thank you so much for this article and thank you for sharing the betareaders questionaire! I´ve been looking for something like this to hand out to my betas for a while now and those are just perfect.
Have a nice day, Vic


[…] as the saying goes, and many writers do not enjoy this editing phase. Staurt Horwitz explains how to finish a book in three drafts, Melissa Donovan reminds us to eliminate redundancies, Tiffany Watt Smith finds obscure words for […]


[…] Stuart Horwitz: How to Finish Your Book in Three Drafts  […]


[…] How to Finish Your Book in Three Drafts | Jane Friedman […]


[…] and writing our drafts, editing and polishing, and sometimes, we get stuck. Jane Friedman shows you How to Finish Your Book in Three Drafts, and she warns you to be […]


[…] I found this article as a suggested post while perusing Facebook recently, and immediately felt pretty tentative about […]

Elizabeth Varadan

Great post! I’m bookmarking it. I really like his questions for the beta readers.


[…] How to Finish Your Book in Three Drafts Food […]


[…] Horwitz presents How to Finish Your Book in Three Drafts posted at Jane […]


[…] Jane Friedman has a great post on how to write a book in three drafts. There’s the messy draft, which is a first draft and often unorganized. Then there’s the method draft, which outlines the messy draft and starts the rewriting process. And last is the polished draft, where you start asking people for constructive feedback from beta readers. […]