Thursday, November 6, 2008

Shitty First Drafts

Writing is a talent, a dream, an obsession, a release, a thrill, but it is also a craft. The words don't just magically appear on paper - all arranged at their finest. The words we love to read were painstakingly crafted by the author, paragraph by paragraph, line by line.

Anne Lamott, a wonderful writer describes the process in her book, Bird by Bird, this way: “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts."

And further:

“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

What wonderful advice. No wonder her books are so good.

A book can go through as many drafts as necessary, and every author has his or her own method of getting to the finished manuscript. The following suggestions are not RULES. Do what works best for you.

The first draft - get the story down from beginning to end. Some people like to edit as they go, and if that works for you, great. Others, like Ms. Lamott, prefer to get the story down, then go back to edit, and I am in that camp, too. I may do a little editing of two or three pages, just to jump-start the writing the next day, but I don’t go to far back. Fine-tuning can sometimes be just an excuse to avoid going forward.

A hint I picked up a long time ago is to stop writing in the middle of a scene. That gives you something to work on right away the next time you sit down to write, and often the next scene will flow naturally out of the one you are working on.

More about the second draft when I post again. In the meantime, have fun playing with your characters.

Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Information about her books, her editing services, and her blogs can be found on her web site.

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  1. Thanks Maryann. I do tend to go back and edit before I start writing the next day. Not a major overhaul, but a grammar check and I may change wording a bit. Then I keep going with the new stuff. That's with fiction.

    With the nonfiction book I'm working on now, I try to stop at the end of a section. So the next day is something totally disconnected from what I did before.

  2. Maryann, I do exactly what you do, stop in the middle of a scene so I know what to write the next day when I begin again.

    I do some editing along the way, but usually just attempt to get the story down--though I certainly make plenty of changes the next time through.


  3. I try to get my scene finished before I leave off for the day, but sometimes it just doesn't work that way. I have to say that there have been occasions that I've gone back into the middle of a scene and not been able to wrap my head around what I had planned before. Fortunately another idea that will come along and I'll go with that. I love Bird by Bird. A writing professor I had in college gave it to me as a gift when she retired, and I treasure it still.

  4. Wonderful post. I look forward to part two!

  5. Maryann,
    I call first drafts "pure green dreck," which is an expression I learned from Lary Crews, who taught an excellent online writing class I took.

  6. This is fantastic advice for writers who get caught up with the first draft to the extent that they never finish it. They want it to be perfect but now they know no one's is!

    Also thanks for the tip to stop mid-scene. I think that can really jump start my writing each day.

  7. Jenny, when I stop in the middle of a scene, I make a few notes about where I plan to go with the rest of it so I know the next day. Nothing is harder than staring at a page and wondering what the heck you wanted to do next. :-)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.