Do most professional fiction writers write only one draft or multiple drafts?

Many times, I have come across the fiction writing advice that “good writing is rewriting”, and that most successful writers do multiple drafts and revise their work. In addition (as a corollary), it is often advised that one’s first draft should be done simply with the purpose of getting the story down and one should not fuss about writing it ‘perfectly’ - that will come later. Even Stephen King advises in his book ‘On Writing’ that the first draft should be written in a “white hot heat.”

But now, the problem I am having is that i have come across a certain self-promoting and prolific writer/instructor called Dean Wesley Smith who writes articles and does videos in which he strongly advocates the exact opposite and claims that anything other than that is inferior. He insists that one’s first draft should be the only draft and that it should be written “cleanly” (which of course implies that it should not be written in a “white hot heat”). He also insists that ‘rewriting’ is wrong thing to do and that doing so kills your “fresh voice”. Furthermore, he claims that, contrary to what most professional writers say, they actually only do just ONE draft (the vast majority of them).

Now, someone has got to be not telling the truth here. Either most successful writers rewrite or they don’t.

I probably should also point out that there are some seemingly self-contradictory things in Smith’s rhetoric even though his mantra is pretty consistent. For example, it would seem that he actually rewrites except that he calls it “cycling” - a process in which he stops after every couple of hundred words and ‘cycles’ back to the beginning of them and edits and makes changes. Furthermore, he actually (rather bizarrely) says in one of his articles the Stephen King saying that one should “write the first draft in a white hot heat”, thus seemingly contradicting his own claim that one should write the first draft carefully and neatly.

But leaving aside these seeming contradictions in his rhetoric, he is nevertheless pretty consistent in his claims that “first draft should be written carefully and cleanly”, “there should be only ONE draft - the first draft,” and “MOST professional writers write only ONE draft and that’s it.”

So i go back to my original question? What is the actual truth here? What is the process that most successful writers use? And is any way inherently worse or inferior to the other (in terms of quality of output) as Dean claims?

The answer is simple: every writer works differently. Some write multiple drafts; others write one and edit it; still others write one draft and send it off.

I write one draft and then edit it. I don’t see any reason to redraft a novel.

But you can’t generalize about methods of successful writers.

My favorite author is Isaac Asimov, who was very prolific. Over the course of his career, he wrote a lot about himself and his writing process. He started writing in an era before the existence of personal computers, so he used a typewriter instead. IIRC, he indicated that he wrote exactly two drafts: first draft and final draft.

Once he became an established writer, I don’t think he tolerated much editing of his work, nor did his editors appear to feel the need to do so.

Yeah, this. It’s not a “one size fits all” activity. Different creative people create differently.

It’s not just the “draft then rewrite” versus “write then edit” versus “write and correct as you go” that varies. One author may make a careful outline with a set of index cards for plot points and a set for characters and a detailed plan for each chapter. The next author may be a complete “pantser” writing by the seat of the pants with no plan and making it up as they go.

I’m not a successful writer but I qualify as a writer. I’ve written two books of about 96000 words apiece. The first one was written once but edited over and over to improve it. The second book’s first draft was tossed into a digital trunk and I started over from scratch; when version 2 was done, it didn’t seem to necessitate a lot of additional revising or editing aside from typo-chasing.

I wasn’t though. I just wanted to know if what this man is saying is true that most professional authors only write one draft. He is the one making a claim about how most of them write.

When you say you write only one draft and edit, it’s not really clear what exactly you mean. ‘Edit’ could mean anything from merely correcting trivial typos to thorough revision and sentence -by-sentence improvement or expansion of the text/story. Dean advocates merely correcting typos but claims that substantial changes to prose or story structure should NOT be made. Is that what you mean by ‘edit’?

Also, when you write your first draft, are you trying to write it perfectly as you go or are you writing just to get down the story?

[Also, i never said anything about ‘redrafting’. I’m only talking about ‘rewriting’. I.e: making changes, as opposed to starting all over again.]

Let me answer this by writing ant not editing anything. Okay, the word ant in that last sentence should have been and but this doesn’t count as an edit since it’s an entirely new sentence.

To begin with I sure don’t understand how Mr. Dean can make any sort of blanket statement about what professional writers do or don’t do, but I’m sure all of them, except maybe writers of experimental prose, formulate sentences in their heads before committing them to paper. I’m doing it right now, and I don’t know what I’d call it if not a form of rewriting.

They say Jack Kerouac typed his books on a single long scroll of paper and never changed anything. Maybe that’s why I never made it all the way through “On the Road”. One book I did like that was allegedly produced without changing anything was “Cruddy” by Lynda Berry, but even so I felt there were shifts of tone between the beginning of the book and the main part of it that cried out to be fixed.

I just don’t think what Dean suggests is the least bit helpful. Does he think Finnegans Wake was a happy accident ( happy for Joyce, not necessarily for his readers who may have been hoping for something like “The Dead”)? Surely even he does not believe one single set of rules is right for all writers. Or am I reading him (or you) the wrong way?

How’d I do?

I’m glad you mentioned this. I guess I am asking the question mainly in the context of ‘pantsing’. The man that I based my question on, Dean, is a notorious pantser. And he strongly advocates writing only “one clean draft” in this manner and doing no editing other than just typo fixes. And he claims in his lectures, articles and videos that most pros write like that despite what they may say in public.

It looks like Mr. Smith has the Tommy Syndrome(from the movie “Tommy”), where someone discovers a method that works well for them then declares it to be the one and only method that works at all.

Yes, well if Mr. Dean were on this board and made that sort of quantifiable assertion, the Regulars here would scream “Cite!” so loud and so fast his hair would stand on end cuz that’s how we deal with his sort around here we do we do.

From what I’ve read over the years where professional authors have described their own process, I very much doubt this. A few? yes. Most? no.

I further suspect that the writers who can do this successfully are more likely the ones who already have a lot of writing experience under their belts.

This is one of the rather confusing aspects of his rhetoric. In his articles, he does pay lip service to the notion that ‘different writers have different things that work for them’. In fact, he says that often, though in a rather token way. BUT he still strongly and repeatedly insists that his way is the best way and that MOST pros write like that (even if they may lie to the public that they don’t).

Then again, i wouldn’t be so quick to really take his word for any of this, considering that he isn’t really that successful a writer and he seemed to have started out mostly writing fan fiction.

I agree. As i said in my OP, I have noticed that Dean never actually provides any actual evidence for his assertions even though he is extremely confident and assertive in making them. He has a lot of fans among indie authors despite this, and it is probably because of his long experience in the writing business and his prolific output.

For me, edit means going over the manuscript for consistencies and to tighten the plot from the first draft. For instance, in my most recent, I defeated the villain using a method that felt wrong. I finally figured out how to make one that was simpler, more clever, and more elegant.

I cut scenes and add new ones that are called for by changes in the plot. But I don’t make massive changes to any part of the story.

I polled some writers awhile back as to how the understood the term “rewriting” and the majority said it means starting from scratch and rewriting it all.

But no one can speak for a majority of authors. I would say that it’s a very small minority that can produce clean copy on the first time out that doesn’t need to be edited for content (as opposed to just needing proofreading).

But I agree that you shouldn’t be making substantial changes. I find that everything that will make a novel successful is in the first draft. You edit it to make the strengths of the first draft stronger.

Smith is full of shit. Maybe it feeds his ego to think his way is the only right way and that he’s special. The greatest writers in the US–Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Twain, and virtually all the others–revised substantially. Fitzgerald once said there were two kinds of writers, those who added to early drafts and those who excised parts of early drafts.I’ve never read Smith’s work (and now wouldn’t care to), but if he wants to call a Nobel Prize winner like Faulkner an inferior writer because he wrote more than one draft, he should build a bunker in his basement: every literary critic worth her salt will come after him.

I too used to think that’s what it meant. But I’ve been seeing a lot of writers referring to it essentially as the process of revision and making changes.

Personally, i don’t even know anyone who (in principle) makes substantial changes to their story unless they saw that it was really necessary, nor do I know why anyone would do that. That’s one of the things that puzzles me about Dean’s rhetoric. He often seems to be saying “Do not change your draft at all, even if you think that it has significant flaws.” And I’m not the only one who gets that from his articles. Even if that isn’t quite what he means, he is at the very least a very poor communicator.

Anyway, thanks for the clarification regarding your writing process.

Lots of old time pulp writers wrote only one draft because the low pay of the pulps meant they had to produce words as fast as they could type without let or cease. Much of their stuff reads quite decently for somebody churning out a million words a year, but that’s what Truman Capote would call “typing” instead of writing.

Very, very few modern writers of presumably good fiction write only one draft to my knowledge. The only writer I knew who boasted that he did that consistently was Harlan Ellison. He was given to stunts like setting up his typewriter in a store window and producing stories while people watched, which were sent off directly to editors. He had written millions of words by that time, of course.

I was at the Sycamore Hill Workshop in 1985 when Orson Scott Card showed up with nothing to workshop. He said he had been writing nothing but novels but that he had an idea written in his head. We were all staying at someone’s large house and he went into the basement and pounded out a complete story. It was magnificent and maybe even an award winner. Needless to say, the rest of us were gobsmacked.

Robert Silverberg is someone who uses the “perfect page” technique, reworking and rewriting each page until it is done to his satisfaction and then going on without looking back. He’s another who had written millions of words by that time, however.

Leo Rosten, though, wrote introductions to some of his works, like the stories collected as Captain Newman, M.D., in which he described rewriting them as many as 70 times. He actually rewrote some of his earlier books line by line and re-released them. Thomas Disch’s 334 incorporates some earlier stories and rewrites them line by line as well.

Smith claims to have written 200 novels and hundreds of short stories in several genres. Yet I imagine that few people in sf would recognize any of his fiction. OTOH, his wife and sometimes collaborator Kristine Kathryn Rusch, has also written dozens of books and stories (maybe hundreds) in several genres, and she racks up award nominations like popcorn.

Having been part of many workshops I assure you that only a select handful of freakish talents can write a professional story in one draft. You must figure out your own style and skills and strong points to understand how to proceed from an empty page to a final product. I personally find that getting the ideas expressed and written comes first, with much line by line polishing later. However, many times a whole piece is thrown out because it doesn’t feel right, or was started in the wrong place, or leaves out critical information. Every writer I’ve talked to has stuff in a drawer that never will see the light of day. The real trick - as with any skill - is not doing it easy, but making it seem easy.

I’m a journalist, not a fiction writer, but I’ve written over 1.5 million words for my own publication over the past 23 years, and I can’t imagine producing polished work in only one draft. However, my articles are rarely fully formed in my mind before I start writing, as a work of fiction conceivably might be. In writing a 3,000-word feature, I might put down 750 or 1,000 words in one go, then come back the next day and review and revise the first section before adding another 1,000, rinse and repeat. When the writing is finished, it gets a final polish or two before going to press. By my lights, that’s three or four drafts, at least.

It’s claimed that Rex Stout, creator of the detective Nero Wolfe, wrote most of his books in a single draft. Perhaps so, although that claim is partly belied by the last volume of his work, published posthumously, which consists of three novellas that were previously published in somewhat different forms, and later reworked by Stout, with plots and characters significantly altered.

But I agree with all the others here who say there can be no “best” or “standard” procedure, only those that work for each writer.

How do we define the word “draft”? Is a story outline a draft? Is the chapter you’ve “written” in your head before touching the keyboard a draft?

I see that Smith is a fairly prolific and successful author himself, so I can’t fully discount what he says.

But I’ll echo the sentiment that writing is not a one-size-fits-all process. And while I have no cite, I would venture a guess that the vast majority of professional writers do indeed create multiple drafts (“multiple” = more than one) in some form or another.

Moreover, the cynical side of me figures that if Smith is making videos about writing, he’ll surely get more clicks by making it seem simple and approachable. Maybe he doesn’t care at all whether you write something good or even legible. He cares that you watch his videos.

Many of the great authors who claim to write multiple drafts, we know they’re not lying, because the multiple drafts verifiably exist. How many different versions do we have of Tolkien’s legendarium, for instance?

This statement in the OP is where you went off the track. This is not an either-or binary issue.