By Gene Wilburn
One of the things I like about writing first drafts longhand is the visceral satisfaction I get from tearing a sheet off the pad, crumpling it up, and tossing it across the room when I realize an article or essay isn’t working. You can delete your working draft on a PC or tablet of course, but that’s not as fulfilling unless you heave your device across the room, and few of us can afford that kind of gesture. Besides, it might damage the floor.
The hard truth is that first drafts are often disappointing and that you shouldn’t be reluctant to toss them, literally or virtually. It was Hemingway who opined that all first drafts are crap. In over 50 years of writing published freelance articles and book chapters, I’ve rarely had a piece come together as soon as I started writing or typing it.
Your experience might differ. If your first drafts practically write themselves, bless the writing gods and carry on. I’m envious. I’m more like William Zinsser who said in On Writing Well that writing, for him, was always hard work and that his pieces required many revisions before they were ready to submit.
The best way I’ve heard this expressed was by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. in The Mythical Man-Month in which he stated the principle “Build one to throw away.” The context of Brooks’s book was different — it was about building an IBM mainframe computer — but I think the same principle holds true for writing.
First Comes the Vetting
Of course you need to give your writing brain a chance to go with the flow on your first draft. It’s important to let creativity and imagination power your writing to see where it leads. This may apply more to fiction writers, but even nonfiction writers are susceptible to the singing of the muses. Don’t judge your first draft until you’ve either written it out or become too bogged down to continue.
The next step after writing a first draft is not editing it, but vetting it. Don’t worry about editing at this point — there will be plenty of opportunities to wear your editorial beanie once you get past the vetting stage. Vetting your piece is different.
Here’s how to vet it: Read your first draft in the context of “is this really what I meant to say about this?” “Honestly, is this writing working?” “If not, where did I go astray?” “What might be a better approach?” It’s even okay to ask yourself, “Am I really this boring?” Vetting can be humbling.
But don’t despair!
If you decide your first draft stinks, consider your time well spent. You’ve learned how it shouldn’t be written. Toss it, and with your newly acquired insight start over. This time you’ll envision your piece from a different perspective. Put back in any parts that seemed to work, but recast the framework of your piece so it fits with your new concept of how it should read.
We all hope that our second drafts will express our second thoughts about a piece and that it will develop wings and fly. I’d be dishonest, though, if I said I’d never crumpled and threw away a second draft. I have had, at times, to write a third draft before my writing began to jell. Usually by second draft, though, the writing picks up.
Then Comes the Editing
Just because your piece is now fleshing out the way you had envisioned it doesn’t mean you’re done. Now is the time to edit the dickens out of it.
Watch for sloppy phrasing, clichés, misspelt words, and sections where the piece doesn’t flow well. Tighten up everything. Remove unnecessary words. You want to make reading your work easy for your readers. Above all, you want your writing to be crisp and clear.
This means multiple edits. Be ruthless and be certain to give your piece at least 24 hours rest before its final edit prior to posting.
Quality Over Quantity
I’m assuming here that you want to feature your best writing. This vetting approach doesn’t work well if you’re trying to post 30 articles a month on blog site. To do that you have to dash them off, give them a light editing, and press on to the next piece even if your posting isn’t as good as it could be. We’ve all read too many stories from writers who sacrifice quality for quantity.
The bottom line is this: Writing is hard work. Quality writing is even harder, but it’s an investment in your writing reputation. To quote Calvin’s father (of Calvin and Hobbes fame), “It builds character.” My advice: Strive for quality. Every time. And that means being willing to toss that first draft and refocus your efforts.
Good luck with your writing, and may the muses smile upon you.
This article was originally published in The Writing Cooperative, on Medium.com