On the Finished Draft

When is the draft finished? There is a time in most writers’ lives when this question appears. Sometimes it’s when you’ve read and reread, edited, written, rewritten, torn apart and rebuilt the draft so many times you could recite the whole thing by memory – or at least the problem sections. Sometimes it’s a piece you’ve spent more time with than any piece that came before it. Sometimes it’s a second draft (although, not often). Suspicious elation sets in. Is this it? Is this how this piece goes? Is this where I stop?

As a freshman in college, I was obsessed with this question. How would I ever know when a piece was done? I asked every professor I knew, each author I had the privilege of meeting. Without fail, they indulged me. They tried to explain to me that you had to know there was nothing more to be said, no other way to say what had been written. I didn’t understand then that there is no clear answer to this question. I was frustrated by my lack of guidelines, frustrated that I didn’t have a number of drafts to count down, a number of edits to make.

Elmore Leonard once said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” What Leonard understood when he said this is that the draft is only done when it no longer matters to you that it is finished. It is done when the question you are asking changes. It is done when you are no longer a part of the question.

At the Chuckanut Writers Conference last summer, I had the privilege of hearing Kristiana Kahakauwila’s keynote address. She began her address by explaining that the question she was going to try to answer was one that she was continuously asked by her students – How do you know when the draft is done? She eloquently and succinctly wove together her experience, advice, and process, captivating the audience with open admission that she didn’t know one answer. Instead, she shared her own method. She said that for her, the draft is done when it is no longer a part of her and is, instead, its own being.

When we ask if the draft is done, we are asking if we have done enough. We are asking if we have done our jobs as hopeful writers. We are asking if we can move on. That is not the right question.

It does not matter how many adjectives you erase, how many commas you move, or how many times you rewrite the first and last paragraph – there is no benchmark you can hit, no finite amount of time the draft requires. What matters is whether or not you have given the story its voice, whether or not you have given the story the power to be separate from you.

Joyce Carol Oates once said, “Novels begin not on the page, but in meditation and daydreaming – in thinking, not writing.” I’m inclined to agree with her, but I think it is fair to recognize that while novels and stories may begin this way, they end this way as well. The writer’s work may be done with the last word on the last page, but the draft is only done when the story stays with the reader long after that. 


Hannah Newman

Founder, Sweet Tree Review

Writing What's Left

At a Wordstock panel presented by Tin House last Saturday, Kathleen Alcott talked about her new book Infinite Home. She was joined by Mary Gaitskill (The Mare) and Claire Vaye Watkins (Gold Fame Citrus.) It didn’t take much for Hannah and I to stop chatting about the tamales we had just devoured in the rain outside the auditorium — the women discussed everything from the implicative psychology of giving young girls newborn baby dolls, to California all covered in dust and draught. The panel, called “Unexpected Family: Finding Home,” inspired funny and dark conversations about what it means to have a family and what it means to find one. I am often a witness to moments and interactions that feel more relevant to me than they should, but I usually attribute their impact to how many times I’ve let the band Heart play on my phone that morning.  Going into this particular day, I was clean of Heart, but managed to receive my daily dose of extra feelings from three brilliant writers talking about their perceptions of family in relation to their own writing and growing up.

There are many significant moments from that panel, but one comment in particular stuck with me throughout the week. When the moderator asked about the impact of loss on the writing process, how grief finds its way into our writing, Alcott put her microphone to her lips and was silent for a moment. Alcott said, in regards to her mother’s death, she didn’t often think of her illness but instead of the dirty dishes in the sink and coffee grounds left on the counter.

And in that moment something occurred to me for the first time, which may be something that’s occurred to everyone else since the dawn of time. So often we categorize our losses into events — things that happened, then ended. We map grief on a calendar like a bad cold even if we can’t really remember when it started. We just know it did. Then sometime after the going happens and the person we love leaves, there are still cups in the sink and coffee grounds on the counter and we’re expected to move on. Here, our loss is in continuing. Our pain is a Sunday evening afterthought. What’s left when everyone’s gone home from the grieving? What do we do when the last car pulls out of the driveway and there’s still a light on in the room upstairs, a fridge full of random produce, and the local news summarizing the ten day forecast? These are the contents of our memory, the remnants that shape us. If anything, I think in our daily meditations and mediocre third drafts we should try to examine what’s left. If we start to do that, maybe we can see our continuing as more than just a devastating but necessary extension, and more of a comfort. These stillnesses are, after all, reminders of a world we are in — one that gives us laughter and poetry and stale coffee grounds, one that is longing for our consideration. 


Jesse Ewing-Frable

Founder, Sweet Tree Review


Sweet Tree Review was born in a basement bar on a windy night in Bellingham, Washington. Two editors, nearing the end of their term, spoke of their love for their jobs, their desire to be given glimpses of lives they would never experience, emotions they didn’t know existed. They mourned the loss of a community they hadn’t left yet. They wanted more minutes, more stories, more breaths held tight until the last word. They decided to create something—a place for words, a place for stories, a place for connection. 

This place is new to us. We’re excited to witness the way your voices speak to each other, the way they speak to the world. We’re eager to see how your stories complement each other, how they contradict each other. We’re thrilled to be in a space that is undefined. We hope you’ll share in this with us—in the reading and writing, in the familiar and unfamiliar. 
We hope you’ll show us something new.

With warmth,

Hannah Newman and Jesse Ewing-Frable, Founders of Sweet Tree