Adrift in drafts

Less than six months into my first year of my PhD and I am on draft number 9 of my preliminary literature review (in Cambridge, we write a first year research proposal of 12,000-20,000 words and have a viva on it before we get such privileges as a locker in the PhD room). As a relative newbie, perhaps I am being naive but the process of redrafting is actually pretty satisfying.

The Merriam-Webster definition of a draft (incidentally, a word that originates in the Middle English word draght, related to the word for drawing) is this:

a version of something (such as a document) that you make before you make the final version. (Merriam-Webster, 2014)

However, I feel that writing drafts is not as linear as implied by this definition. As Elbow points out,  “writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn’t have started out thinking” (1998. p.15). For Elbow, each draft marks a development of thought that may be returned to, refocused and revised. It is an iterative, circular and systematic process of clarification and discovery. This approach is reminiscent of the Vygotskian view of the intertwined nature of thought and language.

My supervisors and my incredibly wise father both gave me a similar piece of advice – keep former drafts. I may have cut a paragraph from my current draft due to word count constraints, but will want it in the extended edition. On a contrary note, I may inadvertently regress my research questions or focus and not remember quite why I altered it in the first place. So, having previous drafts to refer to is an incredibly useful idea. So, instead of just having one document (imaginatively) called ‘Literature Review’, I currently have Literature Review drafts 1.1-1.4 from before my supervisor gave me initial feedback and Literature Review drafts 2.1-2.5 responding to points my supervisor highlighted. There will undoubtedly be drafts 3.1-3.x and possibly even 4.1-4.x. Most of these will be filtered out and archived by the time I submit my interim report, but even now it is rather heartening to go back and see how my thinking and research has developed and refined.

The distinction between drafts is not that I rename it every time I made a slight edit, nor do I label it a redraft for the same reasons every time. Sometimes, I change drafts because I have added or taken away a significant amount of text (usually at least a page). Sometimes it is that I have refocused my ideas. For example, following a discussion with my supervisor, I re-drafted to make my focus much more process-orientated, rather than concentrating exclusively on outcomes. While I may not have added many more references, my approach has undergone a change, so a new draft is justified.

Between each draft, I tend to take a couple of days off to get my mind clear and give some distance. Then, I often print out the document and go through it, highlighting the main points of each paragraph, figure and section. Are they clear? What is their purpose? How do they relate to the surrounding information? Are my references useful and correct? Finally, I ask my long suffering family to read over it to check that it is clear and purposeful for an independent reader.

My tips for drafting

  • Allow more time than you think you need to redraft, always. If you don’t use it, enjoy a brief and guiltless break. Far better to have extra time at the end than to procrastinate and then panic.
  • Due to the healthy fear of losing what I am working on, I save all my drafts directly into Google Drive and, just to make doubly sure, email myself everything at the end of each day. Don’t let your work be lost through carelessness!
  • Are you saying what you want to say? Is it worth saying? Will the intended reader be able to understand it? What are alternative interpretations or arguments? These are simple questions but worth bearing in mind.
  • One of the most memorable pieces of advice I have come across about re-drafting is the piratical ARRR approach. This suggests; Adding, Rearranging, Removing and Replacing. I think that the order in which this is proposed is a useful one, but it assumes that your general focus or approach has remained unchanged. It is, I suppose, a bit granular for a first re-drafting, but useful in the final stages.

Drafting is an incredibly useful process in developing an argument and, even more fundamentally, in identifying exactly what your argument is, why you are proposing it and what evidence you can provide. I try not to approach it as a box ticking exercise or as a self-satisfied grammar check, but as a thoughtful and engaging activity in its own right. Hopefully, I will continue in this happy attitude in years to come.


Elbow, P. Writing Without Teachers. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1973, 1998. p.15

Merriam-Webster (2014) ‘Draft; definition. Available at: [Accessed: 2 Feb 2014]


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