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.