Writing Multiple Drafts Is Not Punishment, It’s How You Get To Great Writing

by Randy Murray on September 21, 2011

OK, I know it’s my problem, but it is a pet peeve. I’ll just lay it out for you.

I see too many people who claim to be writers who write once and publish. And the result, for the most part, is unsatisfying. It’s not good enough. Sure, some writers, even I, myself, will occasionally deliver something beautiful, unchanged, direct from the mother wit. But my best work, and the best work of other writers whom I regard highly, requires, well, work.

Writing, especially expository writing, requires clear, logical thought. The process of writing allows ideas to be tested, examined, and refined (and sometimes, rejected). But this processes isn’t limited to expository writing. The best fiction is frequently the result of multiple drafts, of hard work, of revision, rejection, and rework.

Working through multiple drafts doesn’t have to be a chore. It’s how you get to your best result. It’s how you shape and refine your words, your ideas. And it’s how you know that you’re really a writer, not just a speaker who writes down what they might have ordinarily said.

In racing the term “draft” means placing oneself behind another racer. When drafting you benefit by the reduced drag and can go fast with reduced effort. The drafting process for the writer can make writing easier, especially if you think of it as the process to get to your best result. Your second draft will be easier. You’re benefiting from the reduction in creative drag that the previous drafts creates for you.

Here’s how I look at it: my first draft is for me to lay out my ideas. There’s no pressure. No one else will see this. I can write quickly and I can put down anything.

The second draft, after a pause of at least a few hours, is for me to consider what I’ve written and to do more than just edit for spelling and grammar. It’s my chance to make sure I’ve carried my argument, to make sure that my words, my phrases, are effective and evocative. Sometimes this draft results in me tossing it all and starting over or taking a different approach.

And there will often be a third draft. This is often the point where I wrestle over individual words, sentence structure, and the connections and transitions, It’s where I polish and find just the right light.

I have a play that I’m currently on the sixth draft of and I’m also creating a newer, revised seventh, which is actually a brand new version of the play, almost an entirely different work. It’s not that the first draft wasn’t good. It was very good, good enough to let me see its potential. But it can be better. As I watch productions, as I see it performed, I see ways to make it better. I welcome the opportunity to start another draft. It will be finished when I’m dead (but from what I know of the theater, it will never be finished. If it’s performed sometime far in the future, someone will revise it a bit more).

My professional work, the work I get paid for, typically has at least three draft phases. That works very well for me and my customers, once they get used to the process. They gain a lot of confidence in what the result will be when we start a new project knowing how we’ll refine things together. They know that in a short period of time we’ll move from unknown to just what they want and need. I try to do the same thing for the work I publish here and my creative work, too. Start from the formless, an idea, and allow myself the room, the space, and the time to create something, then to rework it.

I can be a better writer by working through multiple drafts. I’m betting that you can, too.

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