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Creating reviewable drafts: complete but not finished


If you are creating a draft of a book chapter, essay, blog post, or other content that others must review, it’s tempting to just assemble something quickly and fling it out there. After all, people are just going to criticize it anyway.

Alternatively, you may be tempted to make your draft as complete and polished as possible, in the hopes that everyone will love it and no one will find much to pick on.

Both strategies reflect misguided priorities.

Complete drafts generate feedback, which is a blessing

The reason you produce a reviewable draft is to find out what’s good about it, and what needs fixing. A crappy draft won’t do that (and it will annoy the reviewers, whose time you are wasting). A polished draft reflects wasted effort: your perfected turns of phrase could very well get completely scrapped or require extensive rewrites in the next revision.

To maximize the value of your draft reviews, your draft should have the following qualities:

  • The main idea is solid. And there is only one main idea.
  • The draft is as near as possible to complete. It may be missing an example or some statistics, but every important part of the content is present.
  • Your case studies or examples are the best you can find. You may be missing some quotes or numbers, but the full story is there.
  • The content in the draft is in the right order.
  • The draft is made up of grammatically correct sentences, paragraphs, section headings, bulleted lists, and so on.
  • Graphics are represented by rough sketches. (There’s no point in creating polished, finished graphics, but if the graphics are important, you need a placeholder so reviewers understand what you’re planning.)
  • Footnotes are links. (You might be tempted to just leave out footnotes altogether, but when you’re going back and tracking down sources, you’ll be happy to have those links. Even so, there’s no point at this stage in creating beautiful footnotes in a librarian-approved format.)
  • There are no “etc. etc.” placeholders (who can critique a list that isn’t even there?).
  • There can be multiple suggested titles — let the reviewer choose.
  • You can highlight where missing content goes and what you’re looking for with comments in track changes. You can also point out where you feel an argument is weak or there are other problems.
  • The draft can be too long; reviewers’ suggestions will help you figure out what to cut. For example, you can include three examples where two would do, and ask reviewers to suggest which one can be deleted. Too long is better than too short, because reviewers are better at suggesting what to cut than imagining content that doesn’t exist yet.

Ideally, reviewers’ markup will have a lot of word edits and comments, but if your document is in good shape, they won’t blow it up completely. Lots of red ink is a good sign. Few or no comments is worrisome — you can’t tell if the document is excellent, or they just couldn’t come up with any ideas on how to fix it.

Too much work? Try a fat outline

If you struggle to create full drafts but still want feedback, create a fat outline.

A fat outline includes snippets of content and placeholders, with everything in the right order. It is complete: it has bits and pieces for everything that goes into the document. But it is not finished. You can paste in quotes from sources, have ungrammatical sentences, and use inconsistent formatting. The basic idea is to say: this is what’s in the document so you can review it and judge the content and the narrative.

Fat outlines are quick to create once the research is done. And they’re quick to review, as well. For a 4,000 word chapter, a fat outline would typically be one or two pages, perhaps 400 words.

If you can train your reviewers regarding what a fat outline includes and how to turn it around quickly, you can get valuable suggestions and feedback that you can use to create the full chapter.

There’s a common theme here in both the fat outline and the reviewable draft: it’s complete but not finished. Reviewers typically have very little helpful to say about an incomplete outline or draft. Aim for completeness first, perfection later, and you’ll be on the right track.

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  1. Josh, this is super helpful. I’m currently writing on Substack and working with an editor. I submit “drafts” of my essays and posts to her. She’s a marvelous editor. This is a good reminder to make those drafts “complete” and good enough. That way I get the best notes and feedback from her!

  2. Another point is to offer a draft that is bereft of any spelling errors. You don’t want the publisher to see that what they’re reviewing is a half-baked effort and that you didn’t find time to weed out the typos or research on portmanteu words.