Do you let your first draft rip never looking back, or do you rewrite as you go meaning your first draft is a partial rewrite? Maybe you find it impossible not to constantly go back to earlier writing, interrupting your progress and flow?
Do you wonder how bad your first draft can be? Is it OK if it’s cringeworthy rubbish, or does that mean you’re a talentless writer?
- How bad can your first draft be?
First drafts are often really, really bad. As Ernest Hemingway said, ‘All first drafts of anything are shit‘. I find great comfort and relief in this. When I reread my first draft, it’s little more than a basic plot outline using simple words. I just need to get something down, a structure of events, that I can build on. Often there’s no flourish, sumptuous description, depth or complexity and there’s plenty of cliché, redundancy and repetition etc.. If you’re like me, you’ll be relieved to know this is perfectly normal.
- How first draft is a first draft?
Depending on my writing flow, I sometimes finish a section or chapter, then go back and improve the words before writing the next part of my story. This draft is by no means final. That comes much later after a lot more work when I also look at structural and other matters. But I want my work to have some substance before I move on. Here’s why…
- Fixing the words – what am I really trying to say?
Fixing the words it the best part of writing for me. It’s what makes me want to write, and brings excitement and joy to a challenging process. I also find it — as often happens to be the case in life — the most difficult part of writing. You know, yin and yang, growth comes from challenge etc..
I’ve long thought that when rewriting or editing the key question to ask yourself is, What am I really trying to say? I watched an interview with author Sophie McManus in which she confirmed this. She went on to say that when a writer redrafts, they’re responding to technical questions about how to improve a sentence. It’s only then that the writer discovers the real meaning of what they’re writing because this is when they’re forced to ask what they really mean to say. In particular, this requires a focus on nouns and verbs, which I’ve posted about before.
- Creating versus rewriting and editing
In this post here I talked about how you can’t create in editor mode because these processes use different parts of the brain that are not connected. But this doesn’t mean you can’t switch from one to the other, if it works for you. Perhaps you’re able to create in the morning or create on one day and rewrite in the afternoon or the next day. It’s OK too to get your first draft done in one hit before even rereading what you’ve written. You’ll know what’s best for you.
- Continual redrafting
It’s critical, however, that you don’t get stuck in continual redraft mode, perfecting your words before you even get to the end. This is an endless loop that can delay your project significantly.
Seek perfection later. There’s a reason for this. It’s only when you have a complete plot with an ending that you can fix the sentences so that each one helps build your story in that direction. How will you know what’s missing or redundant, how will you know which words are most apt if you haven’t written the ending yet? Even if you think know your ending, there will be changes along the way that will impact your words. Trust your creative process.
- Just write it, confident or not
You don’t have to feel confident as you write your first draft. Getting something down on the page is a start. Remember, you can’t rewrite or edit a blank page. Don’t let fear of writing poorly or going down a dead-end path hold you back.
When you’re ready to rewrite, keep working on the language until it gets to the point where you’re saying something in a style or voice that knows its purpose, even if you don’t consciously know at first what your story is truly about. Ironically, through technique, writers create meaning, beauty and art.
As you can see by the well-worn cover, I love this beautifully written 1978 biography of the editor, Max Perkins. It’s not so much a how-to book on writing but a story of how a humble though intellectual man discovered, fought for and supported his list of writers, many of whom became famous.
It’s an inspirational book about the process of writing and how it renders even well-established authors terminally insecure. I also loved the deep discourse between his stable of writers on writing. If you’re looking for inside stories about authors such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Rawlings etc. (not many women, sigh) then this is a good book to dip into when you’re in the mood.
Key take outs:
- It gives inspiration and comfort about how fickle the writing process can be
- Cut out every word that is not essential to the meaning of the writing
- Great writers take great risks e.g. Tom Wolfe saying he’s “going into the woods for two or three years” to “try to do the best, the most important piece of work I have ever done.”
Writing routines are great (see this post about how to create one), but what about those times when you’ve done everything right (have you, really?) and you still don’t feel like writing? Perhaps you get annoyed at yourself for not using your time optimally, which makes you feel worse and even less like writing. So you decide not to write today but rather to wait for inspiration.
Only it doesn’t come next time you sit down to write, nor does it come the next time or the time after that. At this rate it’ll be years before you’ve completed your first draft. Surely there’s a better way.
- Know that it’s normal
Not feeling like writing is normal. Feelings are indicators. Acknowledge them, which is all they want, and write anyway. Writing is an action and requires doing. Sometimes by starting your brain complies.
- Ask yourself: What is it I’m resisting?
Writing is a relationship you’re having with deep bits of your mind. Not feeling like writing might mean you’re resisting. Perhaps you’re trying to avoid the pain of writing because it leaves you feeling vulnerable and exposed? Perhaps you’re scared of that pain?Yet, the days when you don’t feel like writing are the days when you must break through this resistance because these are the days when a breakthrough is most possible. If you’re a true writer—if you must write—such days that will define you. Do some deep breathing (in 4, hold 4, out 8, hold 2), cast your feelings aside and write.
- De-romanticise the process
Know that the professionals—those who make a living from writing—sit down and write whether they feel like it or not. Exorcise all romantic ideals from your head about the inspired artist, the elusive muse or whatever, and move ahead despite your mood or the circumstances of your life. As one writer said, the writing life may be colourful but the writing career is not a romantic one as the work itself is rather drab. Remember, this is something you have chosen to do.
- Write badly
Fake it till you make it. Writing something is better than nothing and it might lead you to a breakthrough or some inspired writing or even just bad writing. But at least you’ll have the self-respect that comes from trying your best.
- Read something inspiring, then write
We all know that we learn from reading, often subconsciously, so read work that’s going to life and inspire you. Then wait for words to flow out of you. As writers we all need to read regularly. It’s part of the job.
- Copy out a couple of pages of inspiring writing
Copy out a few pages from one of favourite books or pieces and then write. Perhaps you’ll produce the best two paragraphs ever, or two pages of dribble. Do it anyway.
- Free write
Write for ten minutes or two pages letting whatever comes out fall onto your page. Again, anything to get your juices flowing.
- Outline rather than write
Perhaps you’re daunted by the blank page. Consider where you’ve been in your story and where you need to go next (just not too far ahead). I have a kind of knowing in my gut about this; when it’s time for a character to come back or for some serious action etc.. Go with that and begin. The next day won’t be nearly as daunting.
- If you’re enjoying your story, but not the words
Write the story and don’t worry about the words. Who said everything had to be perfect first time around? You can go back and fill in the words later. This is the vomit draft, also known as the creative fun part of the process before the editor in you steps in.
- If you’re enjoying the words, but not the story
The story is annoying you perhaps but you’re loving a character or what they have to say. Indulge in those words and let the story fall out.Alternatively, there could be something wrong with the story, which means you need to fix it before you can write again.
- Reward yourself
Now that you’ve resisted the temptation to give in to your mood, reward yourself. Best not with food, I think, as it has too many connotations. Have a bath, take a walk, sit in the sun, watch your favourite TV show, do some yoga, meet a friend for coffee. Just make it something that’s positive for you.
I recently attended a great workshop on remembering your creativity with author Sue Woolfe. She’s turned to neuroscience to understand how the creative mind works in order to optimise creativity after being somewhat stuck with her own writing process. Here are some gems I took away with me that have lifted a weight off my shoulders and made writing fun again.
We used to believe that so-called creative people had ideas constantly flowing through their minds. A study done in the mid-seventies discovered that instead such people’s creativity dipped sharply before taking off exponentially. This is known as the lull. By decreasing brain activity or going into stillness, we allow the creative parts of our brains to activate. Begin your creative time by de-focusing and see what happens. Remember, we are all creative beings and problem solvers by necessity.
- Writing is a two-part process
It’s not possible to write a perfect story in one hit. You need to do the creative—often called the vomit draft, first. Then you begin the editing process, fixing your story by bringing in structure and order to it etc.. As Sue said, you need to make the clay before you begin the sculpture. Here’s why…
- You must turn your editor off
This is critical. For so long I would write a section of my story then edit it. Then I would edit the whole chapter and next the chapters before it. I was fearful that if I didn’t, I would end up going down dead-end paths. The problem was I became stuck in an endless editing loop and my stories’ progress was slow and stilted. Most critically, I was no longer having fun writing. Here’s the reason. Apparently when we edit we engage the frontal lobe. It carries out higher mental processes such as thinking, decision making, and planning. The problem is the frontal lobe isn’t connected at all to the creative part of our brains. This means that when we engage our editor we’re switching off our creative thought processes. So turn your editor off, go into the lull, trust yourself, and see what comes out. It may be half rubbish but it also might lead you somewhere exciting and new, adding depth and beauty. You can always go back and fix it later. Better an imperfect something on the page than a perfect nothing.
By observing Sue’s advice I’m enjoying writing again. When I look back over the previous day’s work (briefly and without editing, of course), I sometimes can’t remember what I’ve written and am pleasantly surprised. Characters are taking over, which deepens point of view and adds authenticity.
Give it a go. What have you got to lose?
This is my very first post and I thought I would start with something that’s relevant to just about every writer. How to establish—and stick to—a writing routine.
People can have romantic ideals about writing. While your first draft of your first novel might be inspired and flow from you easily like water in spring down a stream because you haven’t yet let the critical editor in you take over, much of writing comes down to discipline, commitment and hard work. That’s perfectly normal so instead of blaming yourself for not being one of those naturally ‘inspired’ people, build a writing routine and see what happens. What have you got to lose?
- No more excuses
Writing is like exercise. You can always find reasons not to do it whether it’s because you’re tired or a family member is ill or you’re working long hours in your day job. Writing can be hard at the best of times, but in the end it’s your choice. You either write or you don’t. What if you wrote for even fifteen minutes a day, or thirty? Bit by bit you would end up with a lot more on the page than if you waited for the perfect time. As they say, writing is showing up on the page and it requires bum glue.
- Be realistic
Don’t set yourself up for failure by telling yourself you’re going to write for two hours every day when realistically this isn’t going to happen. Set achievable goals. That way when you reach them you’ll feel good about yourself and will continue to meet even build on them. Some people say you should write every day but I believe what works for one person might not work for another. Get to know your writing self and act accordingly.
- Define your goals
Work out what kind of writer you are to determine the best goal for you. It might be to write for one hour five days a week or three hours two days a week. Others like to set a word goal. Alternatively, you might like to work out how many words your book is going to be, what your deadline is and work back from there. Whatever you decide, stick to it as best you can. You can always build on success by pushing yourself a bit harder. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you can achieve.
- 21 days to develop a habit
It takes 21 days to create a habit. When something becomes a habit, you’re more likely to stick to it because you don’t have to think about it.These days I go to a café to write two to three times a week, which is non-negotiable. Whether I’m in the mood or not I walk to a café, sit down, get my computer out and write non stop for two hours. This particularly helps me on a Monday when I need to get back into the writing mode after the weekend. It isn’t a cheap way to write, but I forgo other things because it works best for me. Other places you might try are a public library, a park or even a mall. On non-café days I write at home, sometimes not as successfully because I get more easily distracted or interrupted there, but again whether I feel inspired or not, I just do it. What comes can be surprisingly good or disconnected rubbish. Either way, it’s something to build on.What might work for you? Half an hour early in the morning or at night when everyone’s in bed, two hours each Saturday and Sunday when you can find some clear space? Decide and do it.
- Diarise your writing time
Schedule your writing time in your diary and treat it as seriously as you would an outside appointment. Yes you can always ignore it, but just as you wouldn’t like to let someone else down, why would you let yourself down? How important is your writing to you, really?
- Get into the zone
Find ways back into your writing each session. Some people meditate or do yoga breathing, others go to a particular physical place like a desk or room, some free write for ten minutes or two pages because they find that stream of consciousness gets their creativity flowing. Again, create routine. Write it down so you don’t forget it and put it somehwere you can see it as a constant reminder.
- Unplug, of course!
Turn off your phone/email. You can warn people beforehand in case they might want to contact you. If that’s not possible, there are all sorts of apps and buttons you can use to allow only specific calls or emails. This is your time, use it well.
- Forgive yourself for not being perfect
Some days your routine might not work. If that’s the case, don’t beat yourself up. Be constructive instead. Try to identify out what went wrong so you can remedy it. Did you get out of your routine, did you go to bed too late, did you eat the wrong food, have you had a long break from writing?Also remember that sometimes thinking about writing is writing. Perhaps your brain is working through a structural challenge or character problem. If you feel blocked, it often means something is wrong with what you’ve written. Work out what it is and fix it so your writing flows again.