How many drafts should you do for a novel? In my opinion, three (as with many things, it seems) is the magic number. However, each draft has a specific purpose and is not just about vague ‘revision’ or ‘improvement.’
Let’s start with the first draft. This is when you are sitting down to write your story for the first time. Here, things like grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and even style ought to be the last things on your mind. Don’t ignore them completely if you can, but don’t make them your number one priority. The first draft is about getting the story done. Period. This draft belongs to your untamed muse, who wants to fill blank pages with reams of words telling the tale you have in your mind. Let your characters come alive and tell you their story. Write down what you want, without feeling guilty about your repeated use of words or bad grammar. You will improve with time, anyway.
One important point is not to let anyone read your first draft while you are writing it; otherwise you might get derailed by the feedback. At this point, you must have the utmost concentration on writing, and on writing what you want, not what someone else thinks might work better.
After the first draft is done, print it out and put it away on a dusty shelf for a couple of weeks, a month is best. Sometimes (and I know this from experience) you can be itching to start revising and improving, but it’s best to start with a clear head. The only way to do that is to put aside your work for a while. In the meantime, write something different. A short story, perhaps, unrelated to your main work, or even a few poems. Basically, take your mind off that novel.
Once the rest and recovery period is up, get the printed copy first draft from the dusty shelf and start revising with a vengeance. Don’t be kind to your writing. If you see entire paragraphs or pages that seem unnecessary, cross them out without mercy. Drivel is the worst enemy of good writing. You can fix grammar and punctuation, rearrange paragraphs for better effect, decide to insert whole new sections of narrative, or change part of a scene. There will be many, many changes to the second draft, so be prepared for them. Try to get the revision done as quickly as you can, otherwise you will be tempted to keep revising and could end up in the trap of ‘death by editing.’
In the meantime, you might want to give a copy of your first draft to a few trusted friends for some constructive feedback. Don’t cringe on their every word, but see how you can make use of their suggestions. It’s especially helpful if you get members of your target readership to ‘test run’ your book, e.g. children, teenagers, young men/women etc.
Once the second draft is complete, leave it again for a few weeks. The third (and hopefully, final) draft is about doing another revision to make sure your story is consistent, the characters believable, the setting well described etc. In general, the first and third drafts are mainly about story, whilst the second draft is about prose, style and narrative.
In practice (cruel reality!?), there may well be a fourth draft to correct any mistakes that may have crept in during the third.
Once the final draft is complete, you can pat yourself on the back and buy a bottle of champagne. Yes, that was a joke…now comes the hard work of actually getting it out there and into the hands of your readers.