LaVaque-Manty homepage Department of Political Science
University of Michigan

Some comments on drafts

What is a draft? It easy to think that writing projects have two stages: the first draft and the finished product. This mistake usually stems from the way graduate seminars and advanced undergraduate courses are structured: there's a draft, and then there's the term paper. In reality, the final draft of the term paper is not "finished"; it is just the final stage of the project within the constraints of that semester. It should be your best effort on the topic at that point. (This doesn't mean that you need to continue the project, only that you could.)

It is difficult for people to understand that the same is true of the first draft. Your first draft should represent your best effort on the topic at the point you turn it in. That way, it is easier for your reader to give useful feedback and for you to improve the paper even more.

Faculty have different views on how "raw" a piece of work they are willing to read, whether it's term paper drafts or dissertation chapters. These are my expectations and hangups:

  • A draft is structurally like a paper or a chapter. It is not an outline, it is not a set of questions you hope to take on in your paper, it is not a set of research notes, nor is it a set of disconnected, rambling reflections. It has a thesis, it presents an argument for the thesis -- and it is written in prose, with complete sentences and paragraphs.

  • A draft may flag points on which you would particularly like to get help, but it cannot ask your reader to do your thinking for you. It is perfectly fine for you to note, for example, "I'm not sure if this section belongs here," or "Not sure on the best formulation of this conclusion." But it is not OK to say, as I once saw in a paper, "What am I trying to say here?" You must give your reader something concrete to work with. And note that if you ask for help on too many occasions, you are, again, asking your reader to do your work for you.

  • A draft may have some limited unfinished parts. You can leave sections incomplete, parts of your draft may be in just outline form, and you can leave some claims unsubstantiated. But these gaps should not be substantial, and you should not expect your reader to offer any help on those.

  • References need not be complete on a draft. You don't need to offer formally finished references and citations on your first draft, although you must still make it clear what is your own thinking and what comes from other sources. Furthermore, you should develop a habit of citing your sources properly and consistently as you write. It will prevent tedious clean-up work later -- and it may prevent careless mistakes that make you a plagiarizer.

These expectations don't mean you should get paralyzed by perfectionism. Follow also this rule: If today is the due date, turn the work in.

Updated 17-Dec-04.