Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Draft First, Edit Later: A Three Step Approach To Writing

Many people imagine elegant prose flowing from their fingertips onto the computer screen, perfectly ordered and composed. When they sit down to write and find that the perfect sentences they had imagined are not materializing, they get frustrated and give up.

hardworking girlI have never met anyone who has told me that they succeed at writing like this. Instead, most successful writers first write what is often called a “shitty first draft,” and then get to the work of revising and revising again. I think that drafting and then revising works best because we access different parts of our brain for drafting, restructuring, and then revising. For this reason, I suggest writing in three separate steps.

Step 1: The Shitty First Draft

In her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott explains that the best way to figure out what you want to say is by sitting down and writing your shitty first draft. This initial draft is where you get that brilliant idea you have in your mind onto paper, or onto the computer screen. Do not worry about organization, sentence composition, spelling, grammar, or even how silly or simple you might sound. Just get the ideas down. Remember, we are no longer in the Stone Age, so revising will be easy. Your writing will not be carved in stone, but will flicker on a computer screen, and you will have access to backspace, cut and paste, delete, and erase before anyone but you and your inner critic have to see your writing. So, sit down and write and forget everything you know about style and grammar. You can get to that later. For now, you just want to get the ideas onto paper.

Step 2: Restructuring

Now that you have your brilliant ideas onto paper, it is time to reorganize them into a coherent second draft. Take out a blank piece of paper and make an outline that organizes your ideas in the best way possible. Type your outline into a new Word document, and then cut and paste from your shitty first draft into your outline. Once you have done that, go through and reorganize your paragraphs and sections in the way that makes the most sense.

Step 3: Editing

With a full draft of your paper, it is now time to edit for style and grammar. Here is your chance to pull out your perfectionist and search for those dangling modifiers, misused words, split infinitives, run-on sentences, and fragments. I keep a style sheet that lets me know what my most common errors are and I look through my finished drafts for those mistakes in particular. I have learned what my most common errors are by getting my work edited both by friends and professional editors.

Saving the editing for last is a great strategy for two main reasons: First of all, it frees you up to be creative without being stifled by your worries over whether “loose” or “lose” is the correct word or thinking of another way to say “purgatory.” You can mark those places in the text with italics or using the highlighter, and then go back to them when you are editing. When you edit, it will become apparent that you have used “ameliorate” six times in three paragraphs, and you can go back and change it. Secondly, editing last is much more efficient than editing while writing because the revision process often involves deleting paragraphs or even pages of writing. It will be much easier to delete from a shitty first draft than it will from pages of painstaking prose.

If you are a person who tries to write the perfect first draft and your strategy is getting in the way of your writing productivity, I encourage you to try this method and see if it works for you.

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