Be Prepared to do More Than One Draft

As an English instructor who has taught refresher courses in grammar, American lit, composition/research, media studies, and journalism, as well as someone who has been a publicist and journalist, there are two bits of advice I can give on the topic on writing.

The first is: Be prepared to do more than one draft. Writing isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. It doesn’t matter if it’s a newspaper article, an essay for your psychology class (or any class, for that matter), a screenplay that would make Steven Spielberg green with envy, or “the great American novel,” I guarantee you that you will not get everything right with the first draft.

Even professional authors such as Stephen King and Tom Clancy go through several drafts. Michigan’s own Elmore “Dutch” Leonard (author of Get Shorty, which was made into a movie with John Travolta) writes his novels in longhand on loose-leaf paper. There’s no way an editor would even look at his novel if he didn’t do subsequent drafts (which are eventually rewritten on a computer by his assistant, given Leonard’s anti-technology stance).

In the end, we just see the finished products, which have been polished and revised and rewritten in order to be sold to the general public. We don’t see the blood, sweat, and tears that go into everything. And that’s more the pity.

The purpose of the first draft is to transfer all the raw ideas in your brain onto your computer screen, which is then printed up as a hard copy. Nine out of ten times, that doesn’t happen. The first draft is a rough blueprint that is essential to getting your thoughts down on paper. That’s the first step. The second step is to REVISE, REVISE, REVISE.

There’s plenty of typos and run-on sentences that need to be fixed, not to mention misused words. Are you using text message language, writing “u” instead of “you”? That’s a big problem today as text message language is desecrating the English language.

And it’s not just the mechanical details that need to be addressed. You also have to consider the bigger picture: Does it flow? Is the writing tight? Are there areas that need to be revised or deleted altogether? Have all the points been addressed that you need to address? Are all the loose ends tied up with a bow? Are they even tied up at all?

Do you feel like you’re writing absolute trash? If you do, it’s only natural to have doubts, according to mystery novelist Harlan Coben, who has been a fixture on The New York Times Bestseller List since 2001. That’s why you revise what you’ve written in a subsequent draft(s).

“Scripts get rejected from Hollywood because people are sending in their first drafts. And when they do, they’re saying, ‘I want to fail,’” said Jim Burnstein, who teaches screen writing at the University of Michigan. He also the screenplays for 1994’s Renaissance Man (starring Danny DeVito) and 1996’s D3: The Mighty Ducks.

He continued, “Learning to write a screenplay isn’t going to help anybody if you don’t teach them how to rewrite, because you can’t sell it with a first draft. You have to write it over and over until you have something worthy of showing.”

And that goes with all forms of writing, not just screenplays and novels. Editors and teachers expect polished copy. I cannot tell you how many students get papers back with red marks because they decided to turn in their first draft.

The second bit of advice for all you aspiring Twains, Shakespeares, Miltons, Austens, Kings, Clancys, Steeles, Grishams, Spielbergs, and Whedons out there comes directly from the above-mentioned Coben in a recent interview with Writer’s Digest: “Amateurs wait for the muse to arrive; the rest of us get to work.”

Words to live by.

Think about that: Coben doesn’t wait until he feels inspired to write. He treats it like a business and writes everyday, even when he doesn’t feel confident about what he’s writing. Doctors don’t operate because they aren’t inspired or “don’t feel it” that day. Writers have to be the same way; it’s your job. And if Coben doesn’t like what he’s written that day, he goes back and cleans it up… in a subsequent draft, not his first draft.

Coben, like so many other professional writers, doesn’t hit the bull’s eye on the first shot. You might take some cold comfort in knowing that even the great Coben doubts himself sometimes – which is why he does subsequent drafts.

And for the record, it took me three drafts and input from my editor to get this article fit for print.