The writer sits under the illumination of a single lamp and plays his or her fingers over the keyboard, in a beautiful melody of keystrokes. The writer plays the melody through to the end of the work, for the writer can feel it, presses the enter key, and slowly taps the keys “T” “H” “E” “E” “N” “D.” The writer then saves the document and breathes a sigh of satisfaction. His or her work is finished.
Unfortunately, that’s not remotely how writing works.
Welcome to Writing 101, a recurring series discussing the basics of writing. Personally, I have always enjoyed writing and the discussion thereof, to the point where I have sought writing as an aspect of my profession. I am a writing consultant at the University of Montevallo’s Harbert Writing Center, after taking an intensive class on writing pedagogy. This series will break down and analyze the many aspects of the writing process. First and foremost- the myths regarding writers and their works. The solitary writer, who easily types out a perfect draft, does not exist.
Her are the first three guidelines that every writer needs to learn: writing is a messy, ugly process, first drafts are never perfect, and any written work is going to go through several pairs of eyes and correction pens from inception to publication.
The Messy Process
Writing is a messy scattered struggle against the forces of writer’s block and blank pages. It often involves sitting and staring more so than frantic typing or scribbling. Though I am a writer and my day job is helping other writers with their work, working on a draft of my work still involves a lot of typing half-sentences then deleting them or looking at entire paragraphs with despair. I am a recursive editor, which means that I do not type out a full draft, then revise it. I edit as I go- constantly jumping back into previous paragraphs and pages (sometimes in mid-sentence) to make revisions before my first draft is even finished. This means that, by the time I finish writing a full draft, the work has gone through heavy editing in several places. It does not mean I am a bad writer; that is just my writing process, and that is fine.
I have known writers that will write out a full first draft, print it out, then erase the file and use the printed copy as a template for a new (completely different draft). Everyone has a different approach and there is no formula for getting it write (PUN!). What every writer needs to do is figure out what works for them and do that (unfortunately I can’t get more specific than that).
“Shitty First Drafts”
Your first draft is crap and you need to be okay with that. In fact, you need to embrace the crapiness of your first draft and use that time and page space for experimentation. If you are writing a story, write from several different perspectives and vary up your verb tenses; try bizarre metaphors and unconventional word choices. When your first full draft is finished, print it out and read over it with a pen or pencil, highlight the things that work and cross out the things that do not work. Write in the margins about things you can improve in the next draft.
Author, Anne Lamott, says in her work “Shitty First Drafts,” “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” The first draft is a stepping stone and (for me) a mad scientist’s laboratory. Even the greatest writers write crap, at first, but they take that crap, pick out the undigested peas and corn, and shape that crap into a beautiful sculpture (this metaphor kinda got away from me).
If your desire is to get your work published, you need to accept one truth. You are not the sole voice in your writing. every written work should and often will go through friends,editors, and publishers, all of which have input on the writing. It may seem sad and it can be frustrating but its necessary. The best example and argument for not letting the author have complete control of their work is George Lucas and the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
Now, for the sake of fairness, the do not deserve all the hate heaped upon them, but they do deserve most of it. When Lucas was making the first few Star Wars movies, he was surrounded by people who would tell him to make changes or that his idea for a particular scene or character needed work. Those voices, in addition to the budget, placed limitations on him, which made him have to think creatively, and as a result we got three good movies that have stood the test of time (if he would just stop touching them). For the prequel trilogy, Lucas had complete creative control- no limitations or dissenting voices. From that atmosphere, we got three technically sound (for the most part) movies that are cold, lifeless, and frustrating.
In publishing, your friends, editors, and publishers are your dissenting voices and budget limitations. They butt against your ideas to make you really think about them. Just how important is that character or metaphor or scene? Do you need to spend a full page describing a door? From adversity comes art and your village will give you the adversity that you need to make the work better. So, do not take it personally. It really does take a village to publish a work.
Writing is one of the most difficult and stressful hobbies that I inflict on myself, but it is also the most rewarding. To painstakingly craft a narrative and its characters and world uplifts me, after beating me down a bit, and I cannot imagine anything I would rather do than write.
For this article, I recommend Anne Lamott’s Bird byBird, of which “Shitty First Drafts” is an excerpt. This book is a funny look at writing and its messy nature but focuses less on nitty-gritty craft and more on the writer’s head-space. Give it a look.