The Writer’s Desk: How many drafts do I need?

Recently I attended a workshop by Allison K. Williams on writing powerful sentences. You may recall my previous column on sentences and correctly assume I’m a bit of a sentence freak.

What makes a great sentence? Her answer is, “Words in combination with each other and their layout on the page.”

Before I reveal more of Williams’ lessons on powerful sentences, I’ll share her take on drafts. Her upcoming bookpresumes we need at least seven drafts for different purposes:

  1. The Vomit Draft- aka the messy first draft or rough draft: it’s loaded with wordy diction, loose syntax, tense inconsistencies and other warts.
  2. The Story Draft. Here is where the story begins to take shape into an arc.
  3. Character Draft- in this rendering you deepen your understanding of your main and supporting characters and eliminate inconsistences.
  4. Technical draft- where you pay closer attention to paragraphs- sentence by sentence.(This is what her webinar focused on.)
  5. Personal copy draft
  6. Ready for a friend to read
  7. Ready for a professional eye

Creating multiple drafts helps writers hone the journey of competences:

Beginning writers experience unconscious incompetence. As they write more their skill moves up to conscious incompetence where they know something’s wrong but don’t know why. With more experience writers evolve into unconscious competence where their storytelling skills improve but their sentences repeat the same writing tics, such as loose verb constructions, overusing adjectives, etc. The quicker ones move into conscious competence, the easier it is to find mistakes.

Verbs and nouns are a writer’s two best friends, but not all verbs and nouns are created equal. Here’s an example of how a rough draft looks.

I went with my best friend to the party at some guy’s massive house. I didn’t know the guy and felt uncomfortable, especially when I saw people smoking weed and heard the loud music.

The sentences are grammatically correct, but they lack tension and voice. The experience is ‘filtered’ by weak verbs, and the reader is reminded they’re reading about a ‘character.’

I rammed my way through sweaty bodies that pulsed side to side to the bass thump emanating from refrigerator-sized speakers. Through a haze of pot smoke my friend Pete looked right at home among the massive room and expensive furniture, but where I come from nobody lived like this.

By using unfiltered, precise diction, the reader experiences the scene on a sensory level along with the narrator, plus you get information about the character’s economic status.

Here’s something I’m guilty of in my drafts: excess prepositional phrases. Why would I say, she sat down in a chair or nodded her head? The verbs imply the action. She sat in the chair and nodded.

Another faux pas I commit is using modal verbs.

I recall those days when we would go out for ice cream vs. Sometimes we went out for ice cream. Modals like couldand would render the work hazy, and too many of them slow the story.

A tip Williams shared is to use FIND in Word for modals, adjectives, and other unnecessary fillers that kill suspense. An exception to the ‘beware of adjectives’ rule is when using them in opposing context. He smiled bitterly or they hugged stiffly provide contrast.

Williams shared much more information and tips in this seminar. I recommend you follow her on Instagram and Twitter @guerillamemoir and purchase her book when it releases in September. Remember, your drafts don’t need to be perfect, just completed.

— By Laura Moe

Laura Moe is the author of three novels and is board president of EPIC Group Writers. She is currently revising her myriad wretched sentences in her novel-in-progress. Finds her on Twitter and Instagram @Lauramoewriter


  1. Thank you for sharing this! It reminds me of the Six Traits of Writing, a method I used to teach writing to my third graders (and myself!) My students produced some pretty fantastic work. That was a long time ago, and I still use the principles I learned way back in the 90’s today!

    1. Thank you for your comments. I used to teach writing to HS and college students, and as much as they whined about the number of drafts, it was always a pleasure to see their writing develop from messy sketch to cogent essay or story.
      Every time I take a workshop it’s like relearning things I forgot I already knew.

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