Earlier this week I was working on the second draft of a chapter of a manuscript. As I wrote I inserted bits right into the text [THAT LOOKED LIKE THIS. NOTES ABOUT THE DRAFT FOR RESEARCH OR FOR THE NEXT DRAFT].

This has been a long-standing habit for me in early drafts, but this time, as I did it, I had a realization. An aspect of the writing process crystalized for me, as it occasionally does.

Our tendency is to think early and often of the reader and to try to make a piece take shape as soon as possible, to take a form that will entice a reader. While noble, I think this is an error and a risk to the process.

The first three drafts of any piece of writing are strictly for the writer. Solely for the writer’s use. These early drafts teach the writer what the piece needs, what form it is to become, what elements need to be included––and what elements need to be excluded.

It is not until the fourth or fifth draft that the writer should begin to consider the contract with a reader. Not until this point, as these later drafts are created, is the piece starting to stand on its own. Only then is it capable of withstanding the scrutiny necessary to bring it before a reader. Only then does the writer understand it well enough to invite the reader to collaborate.