Part 2 - How many rewrites is too many?

When it comes to rewriting, a writer can only do so much before it’s time to let go.

I mentioned in the previous article that five edits seemed to produce a happy medium – not too few that the work is not yet complete and things are missed, and not too many that the work is spoiled beyond repair and so I’ve used it as a working example.

Five stage editorial drafting process

First Draft – This is the raw material of any novel. This is the bare bones, the jumbled stream of thoughts and tangents that you’ve thrown into a messy mix in order to create your story. 

Second Draft – The read through and first edit helps you look at how the story flows and also pinpoints obvious mistakes like grammar, sentence structures and plot flaws and unnecessary scenes. 

You can start to ‘flesh out’ the story with more narrative, dialogue and description at this stage as well as forming those subplots and themes.

Third Draft – Another full read through to further tighten sentence structures, add more information, more narrative or dialogue and so on, and also fill any gaps with research so that the story isn’t left with gaping holes of made up nonsense and inaccurate information.

You might also cut some scenes or rewrite others to tidy the manuscript and make it tighter.

Fourth draft – You should, by now, have a tight, fluid story devoid of plot flaws and errors; it should read well and make sense and the narrative, dialogue and description should be balanced.

Overall it may only need a minor tweak here or there.

Fifth draft – almost perfection. I say almost because we all know, there is no such thing as perfection (unless you are a perfectionist, which is a completely different story). But this is the final draft, the one you will send to an agent or publisher. This is where THE END really does mean the end.

You have reached the ceiling – any more drafting could potentially spoil the novel, any less and you may not be satisfied with the finished product because some things might still be missing. 

Again, I would point out that we are all different, and because of that, we all need different levels of balance and that means finding our own ‘ceiling’.

The five-draft magic number is one I have used over the last 25 years because personally, I do suffer with perfectionism, that need to attain the highest standard in my eyes, and I fell into the trap of the infinite loop of writing, rewriting and more rewriting in the never ending cycle for perfection. I had to force myself to follow a formula that would stop me redrafting a novel from now until the end of time.

I soon realised that this type of rewriting exercise was counter-productive, and I would have never been published otherwise, because I would never have been satisfied that I had finished.

No one said writing was easy, because it certainly isn’t, but we can help ourselves as writers to lessen the pressure we heap on ourselves in the hunt for ‘perfection’ or ‘complete satisfaction’. We can make our lives easier by maintaining strategies and formulas that work for us rather than against us.

Your personal drafting process might be five edits; six, seven or eight edits etc, whatever feels right for you, but then you have to stick to the formula you’ve created. 

Know at each drafting stage what you need to do with your manuscript and what you want to achieve – just like the five stages above - and make sure you follow it. Setting yourself these targets will help you in the editing process and hopefully stop unwarranted editing that could, potentially, spoil the story.

The truth is, no story will ever be completely finished, because a year or ten years from now, you will look back on your story and figure that you can make it better. It’s the nature of writing, we’re writers, can’t help ourselves – everyone does it. 

Set a target of how many edits you realistically need, and stick to them. That way you edit with confidence, you will know it’s the best it will be and you can send it out into the world and get on with the next project.

Next week: Why being wordy is not a sin.


  1. My first two draft are exactly like in your description, and I was planning to do the third draft just as you said. I'm glad I'm doing right!

  2. I stumbled upon this blog while searching for something else, but now that I've been reading these articles for the last half hour, I'm glad that I did!

    I'm currently working on a novel that's been five years and fourteen or fifteen rewrites in the making, and after reading this entry, I think that it's finally time to allow it to be considered READY.

    1. Hi Jon, thanks for stopping by. Glad the information helps!


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