003. Drafts

I had an interesting discussion about first drafts with some fellow writers on Twitter last week. This all stemmed from a Tweet by a writer - who also happens to be an editor - in which he stated his opposition to the concept of ‘shitty first drafts’.

The author Anne Lamott coined the term ‘shitty first drafts’ in her book Bird by Bird, which I mentioned in my very first blog post. The concept affords writers some breathing room to get their muddled thoughts onto the page without obsessing over the minutiae. The pursuit of perfectionism can stifle creativity and so if writers give themselves permission to write shitty first drafts, they can get the words out of their brains and onto the blank page without fear of it being, well, shitty.

Anne Lamott says:

‘The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.’

The editor who I spoke to was very opposed to the whole idea, as were others who agreed with him in the comments. Their belief was that because the editing process is so arduous/difficult/unenjoyable, that a writer owed it to themselves to decrease the requirement for editing by writing to the best of their abilities in the first draft.

It was an interesting discussion and, as I pointed out at the time, a writer’s view on first drafts will be governed by their own confidence, writing style and personality. It got me thinking of my own approach to writing, which I thought I would share in this blog.

1. First Draft – The Shitty(ish) Draft

‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.’ – Terry Pratchett

I once had a boss who never stopped working. He owned and ran his own business and spent almost every second of his ‘out of office’ time thinking about the various issues the company faced. He would just naturally let his mind wander and start pondering each issue.

When he got to the office each day, he had a plan of exactly how he was going to handle each issue, who he was going to assign each individual task to, how he would deal with every possible response to any conversations he was planning on having. For him, being in the office meant action. Being outside the office meant planning.

I was in awe of him but, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get myself to think about my job naturally, when I was outside of working hours. When my mind wandered, it was so full of random characters, scenes, plotlines and descriptions of landscapes that I couldn’t focus on work. I resigned myself to the fact that I just wasn’t one of those people who could work 24 hours a day.

Little did I know, this wasn’t the case. I was just in the wrong job.

Writers never stop working. Even when we are stood staring at a blank wall, with a little bit of dribble escaping onto our chins, we are working. We are creating ideas. I believe the level of detail in which your mind works, will have a bearing on how your first draft ends up looking. It also depends on what it is you are working on.

Going back to the Twitter discussion, I think I am somewhere in between the two viewpoints. I advocate the ‘get it all down’ approach but I also see the merit of not causing yourself an editing headache later on. This is why I use a sort of hybrid approach to my first draft.

If, for example, I am writing a story with chapters, I will already have some sort of outline or beat sheet to set the framework of the story - although this does not necessarily mean that the end product will end up conforming totally to that structure.

When I get down to writing Chapter 1, I will storm the ideas down, rough and ready, not really paying attention to small details, technical issues or use of grammar. This enables me to blast my way through it. Once I have finished it, I will re-read the chapter and pick up any obvious typos, badly written chunks of text, or things which just don’t make sense.

Once I have done this, I will run the chapter through ProWritingAid (I have the MS Word extension) to pick up any finer details on grammar, punctuation or, as I am often guilty of, over-use of the passive voice. Once I have done this, I will move onto Chapter 2 and repeat until I write those glorious words, THE END.

2. Second Draft – The Mop Up Draft

‘When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.’ – Stephen King

I usually like to put a couple of days distance between the first draft and my brain, which is why I advocate working on multiple projects simultaneously (although this is not without its downsides). When I am ready to re-read it with a fresh pair of eyes, I read it as a whole trying not to stop too often.

It is during this draft that I will pick up any major structural issues. Here I will identify wherever full sections of story need to be added, removed or replaced. It is quite often where I will find contradictions in the plot/dialogue or the overuse of certain phrases. Sometimes, I will look at a sentence and think, that really doesn’t add anything useful. Delete.

Reading it as a whole, rather than under a microscope, increases the pace of reading, which I find is better for discovering continuity issues.

When the second draft is done, I will usually give the manuscript out to a handful of my closest and most trusted beta readers. It may not yet be ready for the eyes of complete strangers, but I want feedback on any issues I might have a blind spot to.

If anyone has ever used friends or family as beta readers, they will know it can be a frustrating process. People are busy and they are doing you a favour for free. Feedback from my beta readers has ranged from ‘yeah, this is great’ to a detailed page-by-page account of what they really think. With some beta readers, I have received feedback in the same week as I issued the manuscript, others have kept me waiting for months on end. Knowing this, it is important to start the beta reading process early, even if that means handing out an earlier draft.

3. Third Draft – The Polished Draft

‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ – Anton Chekhov

The third draft, to me, is the final draft prior to professional intervention. This is the where you make it as good as you can get it, whilst accepting that at some point you really do have to let go.

In this draft I will look at dialogue, character descriptions and plot transitions and ask myself ‘yes, that’s good, but how can I make it great?’

How can I show the reader instead of telling the reader?

This, to me, is a really fun draft. The baggage of getting the ideas onto the page (the hardest part) is over with. The main structural issues are dealt with, so you are less worried about making a fool of yourself. Now you can focus on the finesse, the polish, the decoration.

At this point, I will either have waited for all my beta reader feedback before starting the third draft or I will have carried on without some of it, which is a dangerous juncture. If a beta reader (or even worse, more than one) comes back with an issue which could involve a substantial re-write, then you could have wasted a lot of time polishing something which will be axed. Unfortunately, that comes with the territory. There is usually a tightrope to walk between what is sensible and what is expedient.

Once the whole manuscript is polished, I will re-run the whole lot through ProWritingAid because all that editing will undoubtedly have thrown up some new issues which I will have missed. Once that is done and all the feedback is in, I close the door on it and am ready for editing, which is a whole topic in itself (hint hint at what my next blog post will be about….)

In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on drafts in the comments below.

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