The Meaning of “Draft”

How come one drafts a contact but writes a letter?

The verb draft has a number of possible meanings, but here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary—the bound version, not the online version—gives as the one definition relating to preparing documents: “To make a draft or rough copy of (a document); to draw up in preliminary form, which may be afterwards perfected.”

That’s OK as far as it goes, but it omits important nuances.

For one thing, no one says that they’re drafting a novel. And if the first version of a contract that I create is the final version—in other words, if I don’t go though any preliminary versions—I’d still say that I had drafted that contract.

Here’s how A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage explains that distinction:

Drafting is a specific type of legal writing dealing with legislation, instruments, or other legal documents that are to be construed by others. Statutes, rules, regulations, contracts and wills are examples of legal drafting.

But why would the act of writing a particular kind of document come to be accorded a word of its own in this manner? In particular, there’s nothing to link the word draft to the fact that such documents are to be construed by others. I’ll hazard a guess:

Let’s start by considering the noun draft. OED defines it as “A preliminary sketch or rough form of a writing or document, from which the final or fair copy is made.” The noun is in broader use than the verb, in that it can apply to any kind of writing—if you’ve written a preliminary version of a novel, you’d probably refer to it as a draft.

For purposes of understanding how the verb draft came to be associated with statutes, rules, regulations, contracts, and wills, perhaps what distinguishes them is not the fact that they’re construed by others, or that they regulate conduct. Perhaps what matters is the process by which such documents have traditionally been written. More than other kinds of writing, they tend to be created collaboratively, so drafts of such documents are circulated more broadly, and publicly, than drafts of more private kinds of writing. That being the case, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the noun draft should have become attached to the process of writing such documents.

Whatever the explanation, I think it appropriate that a different verb be applied to a this specialized kind of writing. It follows that I’m not crazy about extending the verb draft to other kinds of writing. For example, I recommend you refer to writing, not drafting, a memo or a judicial opinion.

By the way, the verb draft has another meaning relating to documents, in that drafting also refers to creating architectural drawings. My Google Alerts tell me that there’s an Adams Drafting Service in Thayer, Kansas. (Hi guys!) I suspect that they do architectural drawings rather than, say, poring over the entrails of contract language.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

8 thoughts on “The Meaning of “Draft””

  1. Perhaps we also use the word “drafting” and “draft” because contracts, laws and even blueprints are created with the expectation that they may be substantially amended – even after the so-called “final draft.” They are living documents. In contrast, books, e-mails, letters, tweets and blog posts are generally created with no intention that they will be significantly re-written.

  2. Draft is an alternative to draw, and is a modern spelling of “draught”. In a leading nineteenth century English case on the interpretation of an intellectual property agreement, a very senior judge, Jessel MR, commented that some of the agreement’s provisions were “not as well drawn as [they] might be” (Werderman v Société Générale d’Electricité (1881) 19 Ch D 247 (CA)). This sounds strange to modern ears, but if drawn were replaced with drafted, the strangeness is removed.

    One sometimes hears the expression “drawing up” a contract or will. Cheques (checks) are drawn on a particular bank.

    I think there is a long-standing usage of the terms draw or draft/draught to mean compose or write, and not just draw in the sense of pictures or diagrams.

  3. You can also find “draw” and “draught” used in novels set in the 18th and 19th century, including Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the Brtish Navy. A clerk would prepare a draught copy of a letter or document, correct it, and then copy the result slowly and carefully to create the “fair copy”, which would be signed.

    Mark’s account is further proof of the confusion that can result when a noun is pressed into service as a verb. Estate planners advise clients to gift property when they mean give. Banks loan money that they used to lend. And lawyers now draft contracts and brief the court.

  4. English lawyers still use the term “engrossment” for the final version of an agreement that is signed.

    A horrible word that is creeping in is “craft” – I see conference titles on “crafting agreements”.

    I agree with Jack’s comments about nouns being turned back into verbs. Another examples is that parties are obligated to do things rather than being obliged to do so.

  5. I would like to know is a Drafted copy of building plans {or one that they already have but made slight changes to ] legal in the sense that they have not supplied the finial version, Australian Law.


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