I’ve read a writer needs to let a first draft breathe, like a fine red wine. I take that last part on faith since I don’t like red wine, but I agree with the basic premise.
In On Writing, Stephen King states he lets the first draft of a novel sit for 6 weeks. He wants his story to be familiar but foreign enough he isn’t afraid to tear it apart. In other words, he needs to be able to step back. He believes too often a writer is too close to the story and characters immediately after completing the first draft. Once the 6 weeks pass, King completes a first edit where he focuses on strengthening themes he either consciously or unconsciously included in the first draft. Then his wife reads it, and he revises according to her suggestions. Next, he hands the draft over to his beta readers and edits accordingly. Finally, he sends the draft to his editor at the publisher.
I take a somewhat different approach, though my edits to date are of short stories or picture book manuscripts not novels. I try to do a clean up edit immediately after finishing the first draft. I don’t want to stumble over those errors when I do my first content edit. When time permits (meaning I’m not attempting to beat a closing submission window), I wait about a week before that first content edit. I’m usually over eager to get a new story out to my critique group while it’s shiny and new, so I’m always battling that impulse when allowing a story to breathe.
I conduct a second content edit after receipt of comments from my critique group members. The last step is handing the draft to my very understanding wife who acts both as my final beta reader and copy editor.
But wait there’s more. I know, I already talked about the last step. However, I like to read a story one more time after my wife’s review. Sometimes I find a typo everyone else missed. More often I find a typo that I made entering my wife’s edits.
All this amounts to 4-5 drafts for a short story. I doubt professional writers do that many for anything other than a novel. However, as I’ve stated before, I expect their first drafts are significantly more polished than mine. Hopefully, as I become a better writer, my work will require fewer rounds of edits.
Sadly, what I’m not including as an official edit is the formatting changes often needed to comply with a market’s submission guidelines. That’s a topic for a future blog post.
Let me know in the comments how soon you edit and how much.