How to Write a Book: The 5-Draft Method

Not too long ago, a friend asked me to read his book. He’d written a rough draft and wasn’t sure what to do after that. After reading it, I explained how writing a book involves five different drafts. He was surprised to hear that. Most people are.

How to Write a Book
Photo Credit: “The Wanderer’s Eye Photography” via Compfight cc

We have this idea that writing a book is a magical process involving only inspiration but nothing that looks like hard work. The truth is the most creative, successful people I know are also some of the most disciplined — in their own way.

If you have a project you want to share with the world, chances are it’s going to take more of you than you want to give. It might break you and cause you to scream. But in the end, you will be better for it. And it will be worth it.

Here are the five drafts I use in any project, product, or book I create (including my upcoming book, The Art of Work):

Draft #1: The Junk Draft

This is your first try, what my friend Marion calls the “vomit draft.” It’s where you get all your ideas on paper or screen or whatever. It’s where you dream big and swing for the fences.

Save your cynicism and self-doubt for later. Here, anything is possible.

Lesson: Your dreams must be bigger than your doubts. [Tweet]

Draft #2: The Structure Draft

This is where you look at the structure of your project. Does the story flow? Is the argument cohesive and consistent? Will people look at it and see something that resembles some kind of order?

At this point, you need to make a decision. Will you commit to this? Here is where you abandon your project, go back to the drawing board, or decide to forge ahead.

Lesson: Before you can make it pretty, you have to make it work. [Tweet]

Draft #3: The Rough Draft

This is the point at which you have an actual manuscript, something you can legitimately call a “work-in-progress.”

At this stage, you will review you work as a whole and see if what you’ve said makes sense. From idea to idea, chapter to chapter, and sentence to sentence. Now that you’ve got a structure, it’s time to make this thing sing.

Lesson: Excellence takes longer than we want. [Tweet]

Draft #4: The Surgery Draft

At this point, you need to start slicing and dicing, cutting your content down to its most essential message. You’ve gone through enough edits that you’ve added things, beautiful things. Unnecessary things. Distracting things.

You’re too close to the work now and need to have a someone review it. Ask a friend, peer, or professional editor (if you can afford it) to do her worst. Be ready for the criticism to come and decide ahead of time to apply it.

All feedback is a gift, if you choose to see it that way.

Here, you must cut superfluous phrases and nonessential details. You might even kill entire chapters and sections. It’s hard and painful but so important to making your message clear and good.

Lesson: The simplest version of a book is the best. [Tweet]

Draft #5: The Last Draft

This is when you go through your work and try to tweak the parts that could be better, where you make sure there are no loose ends or dangling parts that don’t make sense or resolve.

Simply put, this is the final edit. After this draft, it’s wise to have a whole team of people review your work to catch simple errors. But this is the last chance to make major edits to your project.

This is also when you decide to push forward and ship your work. It’s the decision point at which you throw the manuscript in the trash (as Stephen King did with Carrie before his wife pulled it out) or swallow your fear and push on.

As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

You will never have a “final” draft. Your work will never be done, not completely. However, there comes a point when you must decide to release an imperfect creation into the world — or not.

And this is where so many people stop, which is sad. Because by now, you’re closer now than you think. In some cases, it’s only a matter of inches or hours between you and a breakthrough.

If you’ve done the work, this is the easy part. Because chances are, after all this editing and critiquing, you’ve got something good. The question is, will we get to see it?

Lesson: Your work is never complete. But at some point you must decide to finish, anyway. [Tweet]

What comes next

What happens next? What do you do after you finish writing this book? Well, you go write another. Sure, there’s launching the book and promoting it, maybe even traveling some to speak about it. But don’t wait too long before you start your next project.

I’m learning this lesson right now as I finish what I hope will be a breakthrough book for me, something I’ve been wanting to write for three years. Even so, I’m moving on. Soon, I will start writing the next book.

Why? Because when I wait, I stagnate. What makes a writer is not the book deal or a platform. It’s the writing. Just the writing. [Tweet]

You better get on with it. So should I.

More on the writing process

Of course, this is just the overall process. For more on the actual writing process, as well as what to do once you have the book written, check out the following articles:

Need help writing a book? Check out my free, 31-day writing challenge. Click here to get started.

What’s your process for writing a book? Share in the comments.

56 thoughts on “How to Write a Book: The 5-Draft Method

  1. Thank You So Much Jeff!!! This post is gonna make me millions!!!! haha but seriously, I really appreciate this road map, thanks for helping us all get to where we have the potential of being. God Bless You 🙂

  2. I have two of my books half done, but then i get busy with something else and they get lost in the background, never was able to complete any. Your post is great help:)

  3. What a great way to look at it. I’ve put together a few vomit drafts in my day, and even made it so far as a rough draft. This is going to be the year I get through surgery and into the last draft. Thanks a lot, Jeff!

  4. I’ve written a lot of vomit drafts, and I often have a difficult time moving on from them. My personal remedy: detailed outlines. I don’t know… I like to think that detailed outlines are as good as a draft, since you’re basically writing the story beat by beat. You’ve got the structure down (more or less), so all you really have to worry about are the words. I don’t know. Does anyone else follow a similar process?

  5. My process for writing a book is this:

    1. Come up with a title
    2. Create a new Word file and name it that title
    3. Write all the front matter stuff (copyright notice, “the characters appearing in this work are fictitious,” etc.)
    4. Set up a Contents page with, say, ten provisional chapter titles (One, Two, Three, Four, …)
    4. Put “The End” at the bottom of the file, denoting the last page
    5. Now that the manuscript is essentially finished and ready to ship except for its main content, wait for inspiration regarding what that main content might be about
    6. Write the main content

    That’s my process.

    So far, I’ve never gotten beyond step #5.

  6. I’m five pages in to a new book and am definitely going to change “First Draft” to “Junk Draft” in the header! It’ll remind me to postpone my perfectionism for later stages, where it’s actually useful, rather than a hinderance. Thanks for yet another helpful post!

  7. Such a great and helpful post. Working on Draft 3 right now although I’m making some structure changes too. It’s so cool seeing a work evolve throughout the drafts. Thanks for the motivation and useful information, Jeff!

  8. Well, this certainly makes me feel better about being on the third draft of a book that’s taken me more than ten years to “get right.” It’s a really fantastic idea, one I’d love to implement with some of my manuscripts. Thanks for the great, thoughtful post!

  9. I’m on the “Surgery Draft” … The draft where you seriously question your sanity. Then you realize if you’ve stuck it out THIS LONG, you’d better FINISH THE DAMN BOOK… Because no way am I letting 2’ish years go to waste.

  10. My process is similar to this, but I usually don’t think of Draft 5 an actual draft. Rarely do I make any structural changes at that point; it’s merely word choice, syntax, and grammar. I’ve already killed everyone that I’m going to kill, and I’ve saved everyone that I’m going to save. Another reason I tend not to think of Draft 5 a an actual draft is that it’s a stage that never really ends. I simply come to a point where I say “good enough for government science”. I write up my queries and get out my tap shoes.

  11. Great advice Jeff. I recently completed a third edit on a draft and sent it onto a trusted associate (not a close friend or family member that may be too timid to share full impact feelings out of worry I may take offense) for feedback. Long story short, I had a lot of mechanics to fix and plot gaps to address. My suddenly “complete” work became in dire need of a surgical drafting. It’s a lot better now and much closer to publication quality. Thinking I may still have to go back for some minor surgical cleanup though.

  12. Jef,
    Thak you’ I always fall short of words after i have read your comments] am on draft 2 where i ask myself would I read this book’ i just come with a big NO’ I will continue as suggested and see where it take me’ but am writing this book.

  13. My process is exactly this, only I, unfortunately, took much too long to get through this process the first time I did it. As in, the novel I completed last year took me a decade to write. There were some legitimate reasons for this – (Three babies in 4 years will slow things down considerably), and some reasons that were no more than excuses (I was scared of failing). And I do believe there were five drafts of the book. The first three were the verbal dump, ironing out which characters’ stories I really wanted to tell, and which needed to be abandoned. There was research that needed to be done to complete the book. The fourth draft was my rough draft, which I had professionally edited. And the current draft is the one I’m shopping around, praying it will get picked up. I’ve come this far in a decade, so I don’t want to abandon the project.

    In the meantime, however, I’ve launched an ebook, and I’m working on the proposal for a new book while I send out queries to agents and publishers. Because your’e right – I can’t get stagnant. I must move on. If I simply sit on the completed book and wait for it to be published, I will get wildly discouraged. I need to have forward momentum.

    This was great advice! I’m off to sure it now. Thanks, Jeff!

  14. For writing a book, (self-help group study type of book) I first write the study and study questions. Then I teach it for a few years. Last, I use that writing, once perfected through teaching it, as an outline for the book. Very little superfluous at that point, and it is mostly ready for the last edit.

  15. I bought a 99 cent book on increasing daily word count based off a friend’s recommendation on GoodReads. I am fairly versed in coming up with ideas and starting out, but need *ahem* practice on carrying it through to the end. I’ve always thought of myself as a ‘panster’ but am finding that doing a fair amount of prep work is helping to keep me on task and on track.

  16. Wow. For someone who consistently has trouble editing while writing, this really helps me know that my first draft is junk and that is perfectly okay! Time to slice and dice.

  17. Timely read. I’ve haphazardly just finished my first book and I’m about to hit “send,” but I was feeling guilty for having moved on to another project. Encouraged to see this is a good sign and to apply this structure (which seems to have loosely happened the first time around) to work moving forward with a lot more freedom and reasonable expectations. Thank you, Jeff!

  18. Jeff, I love this article. I’ve just recently dusted off my nascent music career and decided to become a full-time music-artist. I’ve been working on writing and arranging songs for my debut album, and I recognize these 5 stages. I start with an acoustic guitar scratch track, and find myself adding so many extra tracks and effects until I’ve created a monster. Often when I go and listen to my scratch track again, I find it has more emotion. Then I’m not sure what to do but usually I start stripping it down agai – with the feeling that I’m going backwards, or wasting time. It’s nice to find out that I’m not – it’s simply Draft #4! 🙂

    Thanks Jeff!

    John Kyle

  19. Thanks, Jeff. This is so helpful. I’m trying to get another book out by Christmas and was ready to throw in the towel. I read your article and realized I’ve been trying to go directly from junk draft to the last draft – actually I think I’ve been trying to skip the junk draft as well. 🙂

    I could save myself so much grief (and time) if I were to do the first two drafts in order and commit to the structure before I start trying to perfect it. I’ve relabeled my drafts in Scrivener and am hoping this post will be life changing! Thanks for writing it!

  20. I think I’m I’m better 4 and 5… I’m splicing and dicing certain scenes and adding to scenes to make them emotionally intense. I do have a group of people reading it… But as I leave this story for me to come back to it I’ve started two other stories in different genres that I’m not really interested but compelled to venture into. This actually helped immensely. I’m trying writing for the first time seriously and not just for fun.

  21. “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” yes.

    I am on “Ship it” day for my book, sending it out to 5 reviewers to get feedback before publishing it by the end of next month.

    I feel like I”m abandoning my baby… I do have another month, but wow does it feel weird to be sharing it with others and letting them give me their honest opinions.

  22. This is damn perfect, for a newbie like me who considers junk draft as a final one this post is a guft. Thank You.

  23. I’m wondering, wouldn’t a thorough outline eliminate drafts one and two? You get all your ideas down and check it for flow. I’ve been writing and revising mine for a month now and hope to go straight to my rough draft from that.

  24. I recently took Jeff and Tim Grahl’s Productive Writer Course (on-line) where Jeff shared this, via video. It was super helpful, along with the EXCELLANT content that Tim also covered on Mindset, Habits, System helps, Habits, etc. For the first time in a long time, I’m making heading on my current book project.

    Now, all I need is the right help to get me past my ASD (I’m on the Autism spectrum) challenge of “getting lost” in my oodles n’ oodles of base draft content. This is material I wrote, and rewrote, and rewrote yet again, ad nauseum (us Autistics tend to get stuck in repetitive loops) from which I need to lift material from as I work through my drafts. It gets me DIZZY 🙁


    If ANYONE knows of a writing coach, or cheer-leader, with this kind of patient, granular, steering ability, I’d love to hear about him/her. 🙂

  25. I’m currently in the junk stage of writing a family history book. It’s not easy putting fragments of information together for different subjects and different time periods.

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