Part 1: The Pre-writing Step
Franklin P. Jones, an American businessman during the Roaring Twenties, once wrote that “Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.” How true, especially for writers who tend to fall in love with their first drafts. But the hardest criticism regarding their work must come from writers themselves.
They need to keep in mind that the craft of writing is a process. The first draft is almost never the final draft. In fact, the first draft is not even the first step in the writing process. If you consider your own published pieces, you would admit they enjoyed an editor’s acceptance because you took the time to ready them for publication. Too often writers tend to attribute first drafts to the inspiration of the literary Muse. In their indebtedness to the Muse, they decide not to revise at all. Big mistake!
Let’s back up a bit. Let’s begin the writing process at its logical beginning: the planning stage. Nothing is more frustrating than to invest writing time in a short story or article without knowing how it will develop and where it will finally end. Writing is a trip that requires a road map; without one, writers get sidetracked, stories are weakened, and readers are never fooled by any of it.
The enthusiasm which motivated writers in the first place tends to dissipate as roadblocks are encountered. What should have been a straightforward, easy-flowing piece, in the absence of a plan, becomes a wheel-spinning exercise in futility.
Short stories fare better when writers spend adequate time at the planning stage. A sequence of the story’s major events will keep writers on track. While these steps can be changed, deleted, or expanded, this sequence affords writers a clearer plot path to follow.
Another helpful planning device is the observation chart, which invites authors to gather descriptions of characters and settings. Across the top of the chart are the column headings: Sight, Sound, Touch, Smell, and Taste. Down the left side of the chart are the names of characters and places. One of the secrets of good short story writing is providing readers with crystal-clear imagery. If readers can visualize scenes, the written piece is successful.
Serious writers wouldn’t be caught dead without a pocket notepad where they constantly jot down ideas, bits of dialogue, phrases, descriptions –– anything that can be helpful. When writers feel confident about the information they’ve gathered, they can study their pre-writing notes, then cull from them some degree of organizational sense to propel them into the next logical step: The First Draft.
Part 2: Revising That First Draft
If you took a survey of writers and asked them which writing step did they find most pleasurable, I would bet most, if not all, would agree it is the first draft. Pre-writing is slow. Sometimes it take weeks, even months, for everything to come together. A jotting of a word here, a question mark there–the brain is working things out. It is assigning organization to what will become compositional piece.
Writers have all experienced that surge of creativity as they begin the first draft, which I call “the bridge of sighs” because I know without that first draft I am going nowhere. All those ideas swimming in my head somehow are drawn into a unity that begs recording.
While pre-writing is slow, first drafting is frantic. Writers need to get it all down on paper or onto the monitor. As they write, they keep themselves focused on that one objective: to complete the first draft. Nothing else matters except taking the composition from start to finish. In longer works like novels and plays, the focus is the same but on a chapter or a scene of the eventually completed draft. Short stories and poems, on the other hand, can be –– and I believe should be –– written in one sitting!
After completing first drafts, writers should put them away for a day or two so that they can return to them with a different eye. I did say writing first drafts is a pleasurable experience. In the act of getting our writing down, we tend to fall in love with what we’ve written. We re-read it and we love it. We might even kid ourselves into believing the first draft can stand on its own without the interference of revision and proofreading.
So putting the draft away is akin to putting aside temptation. It doesn’t pay to try and move from creator to critic in one leap. Take a rest. Go read the newspaper. Play “Go Fetch” with your dog. Come back tomorrow or the next day or even next week.
When writers do finally come back, they find themselves less attached to the first draft than they were before. Now they can detect a weak beginning, insufficient detail, poorly constructed sentences, empty dialogue, unnecessary or amateurish descriptions, poor choice of words, and a host of other errors that need fixing.
Though some writers will insist the pleasure of writing the first draft continues well into the revising stage, I myself do not agree. Admittedly, it is challenging but done properly, it is also hard work. And it takes time and patience to transform the first draft into as perfect a draft as one can make it.
During the first drafting, writers create a new reality. They are independent creators who answer only to themselves. Nobody tells the first drafter what to write. There is a delectable sense of freedom at this writing stage. But revising is a different matter.
Writers need to add, delete, change and move words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, and all the while do so with the reader at their shoulders.
Often this reader is the editor of the magazine to whom they intend to submit their work. Ask yourself while you are revising that story, “Does this make sense to the reader? Does the opening sentence hook his interest? Is the reader asking too many questions because I am not clearly telling him what he needs to know at this point? Am I telling what would be hilarious only to me? Have I remembered to add foreshadowing early on in my story so the reader doesn’t reject my resolution? Do I have enough transitional words for my reader to follow my story as it flows smoothly from word to word? Does my story stay on track, hold together, keep the reader’s interest?”
Considering those whom you hope will get to read your story, you will improve your chances of getting that story published and widely read.
But don’t stop at the revising stage or stop too soon. After you are comfortable with however many revised drafts are necessary, move to the next step in the writing process: proofreading.
Nothing annoys an editor more than to receive a well-written manuscript laden with spelling errors, punctuation mistakes, lack of proper capitalization, and even misused verb forms. Does the editor have time to waste proofreading beyond an error or two? I don’t think so. What we send an editor should be neat and without errors. Our submissions need to make a good impression. Proper format rules need to be adhered to or the editor will suspect we are not professional enough for his or her magazine.
When you are finally done writing, compare your final draft–that neat piece of work you are sending out–to your first draft. A world of difference, right? Had you made the mistake of stopping with your first draft, you would have added one more “not-ready-to-be-published piece” to your cardboard-box collection.
We may fall in love with first drafts, but it’s rarely a love that endures. Like any good relationship, the one which writers enter into with their writings requires time and hard work. Writers will agree it’s worth it all.
Salvatore Buttaci is a retired teacher and professor whose work has appeared in The Writer, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor,and elsewhere here and abroad. He was the 2007 recipient of the $500 Cyber-wit Poetry Award.
He lives with his wife Sharon in West Virginia.