Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

The Reader Perception

Never Tell Anyone That You Write One Draft Clean…

But Dean, why do you say that because you teach it here and talk about it all the time??

The reason? This is a writer-focused site at the moment. And writer’s seldom buy my books (except to see how bad it really is because I wrote it in five days while traveling.)

So I am safe. And it is safe here for you to all talk about this stuff in the comments that we have been talking about this last few days. (Comments are still going in the comments sections of the two posts and the comments are wonderful.)

Here, on this site and in workshops, I really want to try to help writers. Kris and I do these workshops I keep talking about because we want to try to tell others what we wished someone would have told us early in our journey.

Honest truth about writing, not myth.

But when out in public, with readers, I suggest you all be a many draft writer. Talk about “your work” and talk about the struggle. And readers will feel justified then in spending that $4.99 or $9.99 for your book.

And for heaven’s sake, never tell them you had fun writing. Play into the myth. Tell them about the struggle. It makes for better press anyway.

You are a writer and as Lawrence Block said, “You tell lies for fun and profit.”

A Very Short Incident… 

I once got a rewrite request early on in my career from an editor. Very simple stuff, but the editor had spent a lot of time telling me what she wanted with a long, single-spaced letter. These changes were important to her, clearly.

I did the revisions in a few hours and was about to send it back when Kris stopped me.

Why did Kris stop me? She reminded me of the perception I was dealing with. The editor’s perception of “work” for writers. Editors are just super readers and they have the myths buried even deeper than anyone. (That’s why you never, ever listen to an editor who tries to tell you how to write.)

So I held onto the rewrite and wrote another novel for the next two weeks for another publisher, finished the entire novel, turned it in.

Then I sent in the rewrites I had spent a few hours on for the first book, telling the editor how good the comments were and how I had really “worked” on it.

The editor had to think I had struggled and worked hard on her comments for two full weeks. Only way my rewrite had value. And by waiting the two weeks to send it, that time fit her thinking of how long I should “struggle” over making the book better.

She had no more changes and the book went into print. If Kris hadn’t stopped me, I am sure that editor would have found a ton more wrong with the book because I hadn’t spent “real time” on it.

So, folks, as you climb out of the myths and learn how to actually be a professional fiction writer, an entertainer, remember that all your readers still live in all those myths. So you must play into them.

In a nutshell, that is why when a major writer stands up in front of the press and readers, he flat lies about his process. Hemingway said he wrote 37 drafts and wrote standing up.

Think of yourself as Coke or KFC. Don’t give the secret formula away unless you are in a protected space like this one.

And remember the real secret to being a long-term successful fiction writer… Have fun.



  • Kenny

    Reminds me of when we had the RAC (UK breakdown service) come out to look at our car.

    We’d booked it in to get it looked at by the main dealership as the car just flat out wouldn’t start. The RAC man turned up and left ten mins later. He’d not only fixed the car but also told me how to fix the car if the problem occurred at a later date (it did, once). Also reminding me to wind down the windows, then up again.

    An interesting behind-the-scenes look at how they would’ve fixed the car at the main dealer, and for an annual cost less than for a single trip to the dealer. (The mechanic told me he worked for the dealer before leaving to work for the RAC.)

    Would I been satisfied with getting the car fixed by the dealer? Yes, but not if I’d known all they’d’ve done is the simple trick I learnt to do.

  • paladin3001

    I must keep repeating those two mantras to myself. “Writers lie”, and “Have fun”…. 🙂
    Thanks for all that you are doing here.

  • Harvey

    Dean, you must be psychic. I do a blog (my Daily Journal) similar to yours over at (not my main site). It has a limited readership, all writers.

    Yesterday morning, I received an email from a writer who’s firmly ensconced in the myths. (“You just have to find whatever works for you.”) And he included a link to a guy whose basic premise was stated plainly in the third short paragraph:

    “Writing is not an autonomic function of the subconscious brain. When the time comes to put words on the page, it is _work_.”

    In case you’d like to see some of the hilarious things other writers have espoused, here’s the link:

    Sigh. As you so often say, every writer is different.

    I thanked my contact for the link and wished him well.

  • Vincent Zandri

    Too true Dean.
    I’m a hybrid author, meaning I pub with the trads and also maintain a healthy self-pub list under my imprint Bear Media. Recently I took on a new agent who will be going after a new book deal very soon. He’s a terrific guy and one of the best in the biz. But it’s amazing how slow the traditional process can be. He read the novel in question last fall, and a few weeks after I got a two-page letter detailing his suggested edits. I took care of the edits in “a few hours” and when I got the novel back to him, he was shocked. “That’s way too fast,” he said. LOL…In the time it took him to read the novel and write his editorial letter, I wrote two new novels, and three novellas, all of which are published and making me my solid 25% return on investment. I’ll have finished another two novels and another three or so novellas probably by the time the big agented novel sells.

  • Balázs

    Hello there,

    The secret formula of writing – I like it. Sometimes people doesn’t want to know how others make what they eat. But what if someone wants to write and still believing the myths?
    One of my friend struggle with his first book. A few days ago we talked a lot about writing, and I let out some “secret”. He was so surprised. One clean draft? Finish the book, and move onto the next? (like make writing important…) Have fun with it?
    In the end, he saw what he can do with his book, and moved onto.
    I’m really a starter, too, but I think it’s actually important to have places like this, where one can find real knowledge of writing. So thanks, again. And thanks for the warning not to talk much about secrets.

    …And I bought some of your books. I was curious, and I really liked most of them. But, man, so many readings.

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Balazs. Curious is why any writer buys a book of mine. Even though most have read some of my books and not known it over the decades. Thanks for the kind comments. Really appreciated.

      • Gretchen Rix

        Dean, I’ve bought several of your books over the years since taking your online classes. And read them. Love the mysteries. Being a writer doesn’t mean I’m not a voracious reader, too.

        • dwsmith

          All writers are voracious readers, Gretchen. Part of the job title. But writers would seldom buy my books with this name other than for study or to prove a point to themselves. However, I sure don’t worry about that because I have over 14 million copies of my books in print. As I have often said, I am one of the best-read unknown writers. And honestly, that gives me the freedom to be here talking like this after all these decades.

          • Kenny

            I read your stories, Dean, and am a patreon supporter of your too.

            I started reading your works just to see what they were like, after reading your down-to-earth bluntness, and I got hooked. Most the times when I see your name on a story I know I’m going to enjoy it.

  • Kessie

    Diana Wynne Jones has a similar story. She had written a book and sent it to an editor, back in the days before electronic manuscripts. The editor came back with all kinds of changes she wanted. Diana knew that the book was perfect. So she took scissors, cut the pages in question into big, sloppy pieces, taped them back together, and mailed it back to the editor. The editor called her to gush over how much better the changes had made the book. Diana just chuckled to herself.

    I quoted your single-draft blog on my blog and added stuff about how much it was a revelation to me, and how much it had helped. Well, my comments and Facebook comments erupted into wall o’ text disagreements from people who outline only. The people in question also don’t write very much.

    I’ve been writing a little fanfic as an experiment, to test out both single-draft writing and cycling. So far it’s going beautifully. I have the shape of the story in my head, kind of like a ghost with no details. So I’m not truly writing into the dark … I’m writing into the ether. It’s been wonderful fun, and the story is almost done. After this, I’m going to tackle the next novel I had planned. The outline for it wasn’t working, anyway, so I’m just going to chuck it and write what the muse wants.

    • dwsmith

      Kessie, have fun with it. Realize writing into the dark is a roller coaster ride, lots of fun, some thrills, some worry, a wonderful result at the end.

      And yeah, be real careful with talking about this stuff out in public like on Facebook and your reader blog. Real careful. (grin)

    • J.M. Ney-Grimm

      Kessie, thank you so much for sharing that story about Diana Wynne Jones. I’ve been a huge fan of her books for ages, and I’d loved hearing this. A fantastic story and a boost to my evening!

  • Janine

    The social media age has only further cemented the stereotype of the writer that spends years rewriting a book and that it’s all hard work. Readers follow authors on twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc, and see them struggle with the daily grind and unless there is any intervention, there’s little to do to reverse this thought process in most. They buy into all the myths, hook, line and sinker. Writers and readers believe that all good stories are rewritten multiple times and the best are delicately crafted through a period of several years. Many believe that first drafts are always garbage and should not be seen, and think anything written in a period of several weeks is a hot mess.

    I’m currently in the middle of a redraft, and after I finish, I’ll do one line edit pass and go through a first reader and that’s it. It gets published (or start over) and I move on to the next story. But I’ll tell my readers this is my seventh draft and that I spent several years on it (since I did a bunch of rewrites before throwing them all out and it’s technically true). And thanks to some of my own over dramatics, they think I’m struggling with this.

    • J.M. Ney-Grimm

      Many believe that first drafts are always garbage and should not be seen…

      For some reason, that particular myth makes me super mad whenever I encounter it. Probably because I’ve always been a clean-draft writer. The people who say that it’s not possible to do what I routinely do…grrrr!

  • JM

    *Now* I get it.

    Writers don’t just lie INSIDE the book for fun and profit. They lie ABOUT the book. AND the writing process.

    That actually helps quite a bit. Thanks!

  • Bonnie

    That story made me think of a comment Scotty makes in TNG about you always pad the time you think it will take so when you don’t take that much time, everyone believes you’re a miracle worker… :).

  • Maree Brittenford

    I find that other writers are the harshest judges of process, especially if they’re unhappy with their own work. I find that I have to obfuscate more with them than anyone else. (Readers generally don’t seem to care how I produced a story. They only care when the next one is coming out)

    And it’s interesting to here over the years that one of the things that people will often say to you is that experienced professionals like yourself are capable of writing in a single draft, but it’s another matter for a beginner. And in thinking about it I agree. Writing with well and fast and in a single draft does seem to be a learned skill. I know that with practice I’m getting better at it. (at least I feel like I am!)

    But it blows my mind a little that people who claim to be serious about writing are so determined to hang onto the skills of a hobbyist (mostly about how to cover up mistakes) instead of learning the skills of a pro (how to do it right the first time)

    Sorry for going off on a tangent!

    • dwsmith

      It’s a myth, Maree that beginning writers can’t write clean copy first draft. If they understand cycling. You can do it from book one. But beginning writers haven’t gotten by all the fears and myths they were taught. And those myths and fears slow them down, which is the opposite of what any learning artist should do to learn. We learn by writing. If you write six books in a year, you learn more than if you wrote one and rewrote the poor thing into a coma.

      Product focused vs process focused. Notice I am only process focused. I never look at a book again once it is done. I like it when they get out and sell some copies, but what I love is the process and the fun of writing. And that is also the difference in later-year professionals and beginners. Beginners only think about the end product. I do the best I can in the process and past that don’t much care.

      And that might be another blog, huh? (grin)

  • Jason M

    It’s weird, the pantser v plotter debate. I’ve tried both ways and no matter what I end up migrating to the middle.

    PLOTTER: If I begin with a heavily plotted outline (rare, but it happens), I usually abandon at least half of the outline by the time it’s done.
    PANTSER: If I begin with absolutely no outline at all, I usually end up jotting down a future couple sequences as I’m writing, and aiming the story towards those sequences.

    Either way, I end up at about the same place. Weird how the brain works.

  • Philip

    This is good advice in many areas. Those of us with non writing dayjobs should never ever let the boss think our work is quick and easy or you’ll be doing everyone else’s work too!

  • Rikki Mongoose

    This worked for classics as well.

    There were some classics who rewrote a lot. Leo Tolsoy rewrote “War and Peace” 12 times, having a lot of day job as a landlord. But even with this high demand he finished the whole four volumes in 6 years. It gave novel plenty of new scenes and characters… but did nothing with its style. The style of Leo Tolstoy for native reader is famous for blunders and strange words usage.

    But books written in such a specific style are still popular. And (hush hush, never say it to English teachers) he did his third and last great epic, “Resurrection”, with one clean draft directly by a typewriter.

    In other hand, another classic, Dostoevsky, never rewrote and even never fixed mistakes. The most of his now classical novels are written in couple of weeks, when advance was almost gone. Old F. M. was addictive gambler, so his advances were gone pretty fast – so he had good reasons to never stop after writing a book.

    So, “Crime and Punishment”, “Idiot”, “The Possessed”, “Karamazov Brothers” were one-drafters, written in semi-dark. I have an edition of “Karamazov Brothers” with it’s “outline copybooks” as appendix, but hey are VERY different from original text. Looks like he wrote them more for publisher then for himself.

    The most tragic example of beating by critical voice is Nikolay Gogol. When he wrote for fun, he produced all of his classical texts, full of horror and humor – Dikanka stories, Mirgorod, The General Inspector., Dead Souls. But alas, after huge success of his early works he decided to be more prophet then writer… so he burned most of his unpublished manuscripts because they were “not good enough”. So, critical voice have won that time and we’ll never see sequel of Dead souls or his tragedy about Kossacks.

  • USAF

    There are some realities that take some books years to come to fruition: time. Try being a single parent raising kids holding more than one job. Sure you can write into the weeds each 5 or ten minutes one gets. But it’s going to take longer than a person who has a good day job, a spouse who helps with everything, security of a car that works most of the time, and a stable shelter over their heads.

    Just sayin’

  • Kristy K. James

    Great advice. I don’t tell anyone – especially most other authors – that I write one clean draft anymore. I did once and the reaction was rather insulting. Not enough to get me to edit a story half a dozen times – or even once. I hate editing, which is why I write it the way I want to tell it the first time.:)