How I build a book chapter in 8 drafts

Manuscript draft of the Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoyevski, 1880

I’ll share the methodical and efficient process I use to construct a nonfiction book chapter, whether for a book I’m writing for myself or one I’m ghostwriting for others.

By the way, if you think eight drafts per chapter is a lot, you’re either a brilliantly intuitive writer — or you’ve never experienced what it’s actually like to take a carefully researched book from idea to finished product. Construction and revision happens continuously. The key is to make as much progress on each draft as possible, and that takes deliberate planning.

The 8 drafts

In this list, I want the “first” draft numerically to align with the first complete draft of the chapter. To make that work, I use (horrors) negative numbers to reflect the three fragmentary drafts that precede the actual writing. You know, like the negative floor numbers representing basement levels on the elevator.

  • Draft -2: Title and question. Before you start anything, you need to know what the chapter will accomplish for the reader. Each chapter should answer a question, such as, “What are all the ways companies adopt automation for efficiency,” or “Why is taking me so long to stop grieving?” The title should cover, briefly, the answer to the question. Calling a title and question a “draft” is a stretch, but putting effort in here will save you lots of wasted effort later.
  • Draft -1. Research. Strictly speaking, this isn’t so much a draft as a task to accomplish. Find case studies, conduct interviews, assemble Web research, gather statistics, and define concepts. If you’re ghostwriting, interview the author client to gather material. Put it all into a directory where it’s easily accessible. If the book were a recipe, this would be the stage where you gather all the ingredients.
  • Draft 0. Fat outline. Assemble the bits and pieces you’ve gathered into a sequence that makes sense. Toss them, or placeholders for them, into a document. This is the “zeroth” draft or fat outline, which becomes a plan for exactly what you need to write.
  • Draft 1. First complete draft. Having written the fat outline, there’s nothing to stop you from writing a full draft. Set aside an hour or two for writing. Start at the top and write in flow. This process is highly satisfying, because, with all the source materials and structural problems solved ahead of time, you can concentrate fully on writing. Don’t worry too much about redundancy or consistency, you’ll fix those problems in the next draft.
  • Draft 2. Quick self-edit. Read the chapter you wrote from beginning to end and solve the problems of flow, structure, and consistency you can find on your own. The result should be a chapter that you feel is ready for review by others.
  • Draft 3. “Second” draft, response to edits. Respond to feedback from your editor, from other reviewers, and, if you’re ghostwriting, from your author client. It’s often best to start to revise chapters after you’ve written a bunch, or drafted the whole book, so you can address issues of consistency across chapters.
  • Draft 4. Final manuscript draft. Fix all problems raised during the book process. Check facts. Ensure terminological consistency. Address formatting issues. Finalize footnotes. Polish. You should treat this as your last chance to make the book perfect before handing it in to the publisher or publishing services company.
  • Draft 5. Response to copy edits. Address grammatical and factual issues raised by your copy editor.

The result of planning is efficiency and quality

My main point here is to help authors identify where they are in the process and what they’re doing at each point. If you’re steadily assembling content and then writing, you’ll use your time efficiently (there’s a reason my book is called Build a Better Business Book, not Write a Better Business Book). If you have no idea what’s ahead, you’ll be revising, rewriting, researching, and reverting over and over again. This is not only inefficient. It also impairs the quality of your writing, because you’ll read the same text over and over again so many times that you’ll lose perspective.

Each of the eight drafts is a manageable, modular task. And for experienced authors, that’s what turns writing a great book into a tractable project.

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