I would call a “draft” of a literary work any version that is finished in a preliminary way. Usually, writers create multiple drafts of a work before they consider it finished.
But do “drafts” still exist in the digital age, when new versions are rarely printed out? For longer works, certainly. For a work such as a novel or a book of nonfiction, a draft can take years to create or revise. A novelist or nonfiction writer may spend a year or two writing the first draft, ask for comments from writer friends, work on a second draft for a year more, send the text to an agent, and spend months working on a third draft that incorporates the agent’s comments. That is a fairly typical writing process for full-length prose works.
But for shorter works, such as poems, short stories, or blogs, drafts have almost ceased to exist in the digital age. The concept of a draft dates back to the pre-digital era, when you had to write or type everything by hand, and every draft existed on a separate sheet or sheets of paper. But even in those bad old days, each draft had notes that were scrawled in the margins or between lines, Inserts A and B added on extra pages, etc. So one “draft” was in reality many drafts.
For shorter works, such as a poem or a blog, every time you open a file, make a change, and hit Save, you’ve created a new draft. There is rarely such a thing as a draft anymore in the old sense of a newly printed or handwritten copy. Or rather, every version, even a digitally printed version, is actually a draft, since it so easy to change text even once it has been published, if it’s online.
What does this mean for writers of short works, that there are no longer drafts, or that works are perpetually in progress? On the one hand, it gives a writer a sense of freedom that s/he can make changes so easily. It’s as if a sculptor could work in magical clay that’s perpetually wet and never dries until you want it to. There’s much greater fluidity and flexibility now for writers, and that situation is highly conducive to creativity, which usually requires experimentation.
On the other hand, with text being so fluid, there is little incentive to polish writing to perfection. Rarely is a version considered final. There’s also not the same sense of progressive steps in the writing process. There is no longer physical evidence of the various stages that a work has undergone, the way there used to be a paper trail of all the drafts of a poem, for example.
Is it a good thing that writers now work in a much more fluid medium, where it’s easier to make changes, but more difficult to see a work as final, as finished? I’m not sure it’s better, but it certainly is a different process for writers of short works. In a way those changes mirror what has happened in the realm of relationships—there is much more fluidity now in relationships than there has been in recent centuries, but there is less of a sense of each stage of courtship, with the progression of steps leading to a final resolution.
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How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration