The immediacy and the economics of writing for the web have steadily reduced the number of drafts produced on any given story. When I worked for a weekly newspaper, there were at least four or five drafts of a piece, from the reporter, editor, senior editor and copy editor. Almost without exception, every draft was an improvement.
These days? A once-or-twice draft is more the norm. Based on my own experiences and those of my friends in the journalism world, plenty of content never sees more than a quick copyedit. I also write for companies. There, a piece goes through seven or eight drafts before it’s considered complete. The dichotomy reflects the way the business model of journalism has been destroyed. Editing does make a difference, whether it is self-editing or editing by another; it’s just that many journalism outlets, especially the lower tier ones, can’t afford to support editing anymore.
The norms have been taken down a notch. When you see that a badly written story with a celebrity headline gets 10 times the traffic of a carefully thought out piece, it’s easy to convince yourself that editing doesn’t matter. I try not to let myself fall into that trap.
I have to operate with the aforementioned economics — if someone isn’t going to pay me to really work on a piece, that’s that. But sometimes I make my own decision to spend more time, at an economic loss. That certainly includes several drafts before a story even leaves my computer.
I’ve found that one way to force myself to revise is to print a hard copy of a piece I’m working on. Typically, I write my rough draft on the computer, revise it once, and then (when I’m being disciplined), I print it out. I always see something different in the printed version of a piece. Different mediums help the editing process.
George Saunders had this to say about the value of multiple in fiction — which is a reminder of the value of multiple drafts in general:
“If somebody gave you a furnished apartment that they had furnished, your first impression would be, ‘Well, thanks, but this doesn’t feel like me.’ But then if you were allowed to replace one item every day for seven years with an item that you liked better, after seven years that place would have you all over it in ways that you couldn’t anticipate at the beginning. So, likewise in a story, if you’re doing hundreds of drafts, and each time you’re micro-exerting your taste, that thing is going to look like more and more of you. In fact, I feel like my stories are much more indicative of me than this guy here talking to you or even me on one of my best days. The story’s a chance to sort of super-compress whoever you are and present it in this slightly elevated way.”