Monday, February 29, 2016

on writing and the first draft.

but you can edit your first draft.


There is very little flare to my shitty first draft. Aside from those first thousand words that I wrote two years ago and edited until they were gleaming it is just facts on a page, with all of the fluency and grace of a seven year old writing about their school holidays – 'I went swimming then I had a burger then my sister punched me in the leg on the way home so I broke her toy and we both got in trouble and it wasn't fair'. I didn't know that I had it in me to write so badly.

The shitty first draft is an notion that stuck with me after reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird five years ago (and then four years ago and three years ago and one year ago - I love that book). Inspired by Earnest Hemingway's assertion that the first draft of everything is shit, its only purpose to get a writer past the terrifyng hurdle of the blank page to the point where they can revise it and tweak it and turn it into a good second draft and an even better third draft, she wrote a whole chapter extolling the virtues of the Shitty First Draft. It is an explosion of the myth that coherent words just flow from those with a gift for them, that a good writer can just write and that if what comes from your hands the first time around is less than readable then writing is not for you.

She says

I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God* likes her or can even stand her.

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.

We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time. Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning -- sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.


I find myself thinking of this a lot at the moment, as the words stack up and they are mostly terrible. Lamott also advises vehemently against editing as one goes, she says that you must get to the end and then edit. Doing this pains me. Seeing all of those crappy words sitting there disjointedly and clumsily and adding yet more crappy words to them makes me feel slightly sick, but she knows more than me and is very clever and I need someone to tell me what to do and seeing as she makes me laugh a lot it may as well be her. Not everyone agrees with her, this guy for instance, but I don't know who he is, he has never made me laugh and he doesn't care for the word 'shitty', so I see no reason to listen to him. 

I'm not sure I can do it right until the end. I am working in six sections and I suspect that once I have finished the first one I will go back and edit it, partly to see if I can make it readable before I flog myself over 60,000 more words, and partly because there's only so long I can go on living with this drivel on my hard drive. What if I die before I get a chance to edit it and people think that it was meant to be like this? Sheesh.




* Lamott writes a lot about God and Christianity and has written some beautiful books about faith and how she got there from being a raging alcoholic. I am not religious, not with any regularity or predictability anyway, and I love her writings on God, they are some of the most calming, reasuring, inspiring, hilarious books I have ever read. I have reread Travelling Mercies even more times than I've reread Bird by Bird. 



9 comments:

  1. Thank you for this recommendation! I'm mid-first draft and feeling like it's a big pile of crap: Bird by Bird duly purchased.

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    1. Well done for getting half way through! That feeling is so depressing, the 'why am I wasting my time on this shit?' feeling. I hope Bird by Bird helps, it's a great book!

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  2. For what it's worth, I took all the advice and just wrote the first draft of the current work in progress, rather than editing as I went along. I new much of it was rubbish as I wrote it, and I now have a file of over 30,000 discarded words. It took me ages to write those 30,000 words - I wish I'd spent the time editing as I went along ... I can see why it might work for some people, but I think your idea of doing it in sections is much better.

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    1. 30,000 words is a lot to let go of! I can see why the advice is there, I think a lot of people (me!) would get so bogged down in the editing that they never get to the end of the writing. You probably have more self-discipline than that though!

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    2. Maybe. If I was doing non-fiction in sections, I think I would definitely edit at the end of each section. Then you won't end up with an overwhelmingly huge heap of crap (not that you're writing crap, I'm sure) but with smaller heaps of crap that you can then improve on. Who knows, though?!

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  3. I do pretty much as you think you might, I write a first draft most of the way through but I start editing before I finish. Of course, I'm just talking about 1K word blog posts, but still, it's just too hard to leave all that ugly out, and when I edit for language I find I change my thoughts a bit and then I have to rewrite substantively anyway.

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    1. Oh yes! My method with blog posts is totally different, I just write until it's done, go over it a couple of times tweaking it and then I'm done. Writing 1000 words is so much more enjoyable!

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play nice.