How many drafts should you write? (Hint: once is not enough)

I've never been a big fan of the mystery or crime thriller genre, apart from when I was pregnant with triplets. Consigned to bed-rest, I took to my chamber with Vikram Seth's literary novel A Suitable Boy -- all 1,488 pages of it.

When I was free again (a relative term, as I then had three babes in arms), I hadn't even cracked the considerable spine of the Seth book. But I had devoured the entire oeuvre of mystery-meisters Jonathan and Faye Kellerman. I attribute it to the hormones and haven't read a mystery since.

Perhaps this is why I'd never heard of James Patterson. Judging by his ranking on Amazon -- generally somewhere between 3.5 and four stars -- the author of The Women's Murder Club series is a competent writer who knows how to produce a page-turner.

He's even received the ultimate compliment from prime-time TV and been featured on The Simpsons. (The episode reportedly showed Marge reading one of his books on the beach. "Ooooo, I love James Patterson," she exclaimed. "It's amazing how he always manages to solve the crime just as you're getting to the end of the book.")

My Saturday newspaper recently featured an interview with Patterson in which he discussed his writing methods. He begins his writing day at 5 a.m. and works for several hours. "I write every day, weekends too, first early in the morning, and then in the afternoon, maybe 2 to 6," he told the interviewer. But for me his most interesting comments related to rewriting. After the first draft, he said, he rewrites a minimum of two to seven more times.

People frequently ask me how many times they should rewrite. I try to dodge this question because, in truth, there is no easy answer. Pieces of writing are like snowflakes; each is unique. There are, however, some questions you can ask yourself for guidance:

1) Have you allowed a minimum of a day to pass before you start editing something you’ve written? Self-editing requires tincture of time. If you want to judge how much rewriting your work requires, you need some distance from it. Take a break.

2) Can you describe your audience and your purpose in a single sentence? To determine if your piece has "worked" you need to know who you are writing for and why. In this piece, for example, my audience is readers of the Book Pleasures website. My main purpose is to convince you that rewriting, more than once, is necessary.

3) Does your [non-fiction] writing include real-life examples? No one wants to read just theory. People want to read about people -- or about stuff that's really happened. This rule applies to every type of writing, except, perhaps (sigh) academic work.

4) Have you read your work out loud? Yes, you may look goofy. And, yes, whispering is permitted. But you may not skip this step. It's crucial for determining whether your piece really "hangs together" -- and for spotting and fixing the rough bits.

5) Have you run your writing through a readability check? There is a readability feature built into MS Word (Tools/Options/Spelling & grammar/Show readability statistics) that will help you identify ways to make your writing easier to read. If you’re not familiar with it, consult your Help menu or Google to find out how it works.

Yes, rewriting can be boring and tiresome. But if James Patterson is willing to rewrite each of his (estimated) 90,000-word novels two to seven times, surely your short article or report deserves a little more attention, too.