How many drafts until it’s finished?

‘Art is never finished, only abandoned,’ said Leonardo da Vinci. Today I sent my final draft to the publisher. Does it mean I’m finished? I have learned that my work will never be completely done, but there comes a time when I have to let go and let it fly. I don’t think it will ever be perfect, but I know I have given it wings and hope it will soar. My final draft is my seventh. I will tell you how I’ve worked on this novel.

I had an idea for my second book and never realised how much research can stimulate imagination. But it can also distract from writing. I wrote my first draft quickly. The book was part of a two book deal and I had to finish in a year.

After the first draft, I printed out the manuscript and scribbled notes in the margins. I cut out every descriptive adjective and then put a few back again. I took out almost all adverbs and weak words like ‘very’.

I rewrote the novel and sent my second draft to my first readers, my parents-in-law. I was ready for criticism. Their assessment was helpful and insightful and I never felt offended. Because they were linguists, they focussed on the grammar and word choice. I took their remarks to heart and repeated the process of rewriting.

I sent my third draft to another reader who concentrated more on the content. Did the story flow? Did each character have their own personality? Could the reader identify with the character? Did I answer each question?

With the reader’s feedback, I realized there were a few shortcomings in my story. For example, if I read a part and skipped it, it was probably not good. What helped me then was to read the manuscript aloud to myself. I revised a few things and sent my fourth draft off. But my book was shelved and I started writing a new novel.

After a few years, I took out the manuscript again. Now it had time to gestate and I could see the flaws immediately: sometimes, especially if I found an interesting fact in my research, I wanted to share that in my story. Some parts read like history lessons; I made the mistake of telling and not showing. I learned that I needed to write things down to get it out of my system and to delete it afterwards. I had around 88.000 words, it went up to over 90.000 and now I have 88.000 words again.

My fifth draft was read by a reader with a critical eye. The emphasis this time was on consistency and flow. My publisher read the sixth draft and it required some final changes.  After the last revision, I did a spellcheck and tried to take out all the typos of the seventh draft.

Many writers have several drafts. I read in JM Coetzee and the Life of Writing (David Attwell), that some of Coetzee’s novels sometimes developed through more than 15 drafts. Oscar Wilde’s famous comma-note, struck a core, ‘I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon in putting it back,’ and I knew I was ready with my final draft.