The concept of The Ugly First Draft was documented well by Ann Handley in Everybody Writes. It’s one all writers can appreciate; though first drafts are often fun to write, they’re excruciating to read.
Your first draft may be the most disgusting thing you ever wrote. Still, there’s some good stuff in there — some real gems, in fact. You sort of “felt them” as you typed or hand wrote them. You’re sure they’re in there, those little glittering nuggets, because they felt good to write. You’ll find them when you edit.
Ahh, editing. Now’s the time to print out the draft and look at it from another angle. Time to regroup the troops and see what good can come of such a thing.
But wait, there are no “troops.” It’s just you. Lonely little you, trying to muster the courage to face your first ugly draft once again.
— Jen McGahan (@JenMcGahan) April 27, 2015
Writers either love or hate the first editing go-round.
The process is cleansing, that’s for sure. You know you’ll only end up with (at best) a third of your first copy, so you must brace yourself for that first slice.
On the other hand, getting out the red pen is a little like pulling on hip-high boots and wading out into the foulest, murkiest bog that ever sent a stink up to heaven. This could be a slow, dirty death, with words and phrases clinging for survival as tenaciously as leeches.
That first draft is a bog of your making, though, so, well… stiffen up. There’s more work to do.
Editing is a fact of life, so how do you prepare to kill the darlings? You back off a bit first.
Give yourself some space. If you just finished the first draft, you’re going to need it.
It’s crucial to gain some perspective before diving in with a red pencil. You need some time, patience, and provisions.
By the way, this is the real reason why writers shouldn’t charge by the hour: because from the moment you and your client accept the terms of the job, you’re thinking about it nonstop. The project never goes away. At some level, that thing you must write is always quietly simmering, haunting you until it’s done.
Here’s the truth about first drafts. Once you write it, and before you edit it, there’s a sweet spot of time and (in)activity from which your best second draft will emerge.
If you let it “simmer” too long, you’ll end up with something like a burnt-bottomed pot of mushy beans. You won’t be able to use the writing because your mind will have moved on (and on and on), and you’ll have wasted your time, too. Like a ruined pot, you have to kiss goodbye those hours you spent writing.
It’s like restarting with dry beans again; a real waste. But if you start in on the first draft too soon, that’s a mistake, too. To keep the cooking analogy going, the time between the first draft and the first edits are when you should be chopping vegetables, baking bread, or choosing the wine. Whatever you do, stop tinkering with those beans!
In other words, stop messing with the text. Let the words cool and breathe. They need to regain their texture, so they don’t fall apart in the final dish.
Leave that first draft alone for awhile, but not too long… just long enough to build up some creative stamina and move into the reader’s headspace.
Here are my five favorite activities to engage in between a first draft and a first round of edits. They foster creativity (but not too much), and allow for ample brain-drain so you can see your first draft for what it really is.
It doesn’t have to be a dog, nor does it have to be a walk. But the object should be something natural, alive, organic, non-human. As for the activity, it should include some interaction that requires physical, mental, or spiritual participation. This is important.
A dog, a cat, a fishpond, or a string-bean vine cannot talk, and yet the very “aliveness” in these things heightens your awareness of the vulnerability of life.
If that sounds a little woo-woo, think of it this way. You inhabit planet Earth right along with the people you’re trying to reach with your writing. This exercise is an opportunity to stop looking them in the face, and instead turn your gaze outward in a positive, life-affirming direction. It deflects any tension in all the right spots.
Being around something that doesn’t understand words cultivates nonverbal creativity that produces good writing. If you’ve never tried this, I encourage you to give it a go at least once. Nature layers on complexity that you don’t get sitting at your desk. Nonverbal communication adds dimension to your text.
At the very least, sit under a gorgeous tree and plunge your fingers into the grass; or bask in a quiet, sunny window for a little while… you’ll see.
Make sure you get some shut-eye between your first and second drafts. If you’re under a deadline, at least take a quick nap. Even 20 minutes of subconsciousness refreshes and awakens your brain. Otherwise it’s your old brain looking at the same piece of writing — and what’s the point in that?
A mind that hasn’t crossed the barrier of consciousness is the same mind that wrote your first draft. Don’t let it be the one to edit it. You must be “gone” temporarily in order to come back strong.
Consume calories. This is your energy that fuels your mind. Food is medicine, you know, so make it healthy; not a ton of sugar, which will only depress and deplete you. Try some real, colorful food; and some caffeine if you must.
Talk with someone about something completely unrelated, call a friend, or have lunch with someone new. You may not think you have time for such a luxury as conversation, but if your ability to focus is strong enough, another human voice can really improve your writing.
It’s just another way to divide your writing life into productive chunks. Some writers may think they have to shut themselves away, but I challenge you to open the door.
Look, it’s just you here. You don’t have a team collaborating on your ugly first draft, or your first edited draft. At least I hope not. (Collaborative writing never works.)
Between the first draft and the final edits is a period in which you become a different person from the writer you were when you wrote your first draft. There has to be some growth and change, however slight. We re-create ourselves anew every time we lift our heads, so you needn’t strive for an earth-shaking transformation, just a small tremor.
Ask questions, be curious about something or someone you didn’t know 10 minutes ago, get a different perspective on life, pick up the phone… and you’ll foster a facility of mind that will serve your writing well.
That person who sits down to edit your first draft with a red pen can’t be the exact same person who wrote it. She just has to like her and relate to her an awful lot. 🙂
Now that you think I’m Sybil…
Do something to improve your outlook and comfort. Take a bath. Exercise. Tidy up your office. Read something that inspires you. Apply some essential oils to your skin, or diffuse some in your office, using an oil that increases focus, energy, creativity or stamina. (Yes, essential oils work wonders!)
rigorous editing demands your sharp attention. You have control over your surroundings and how you feel, so take responsibility to nurture your inner and outer writer.
Finally, allow the editor to have the final word.
It’s been said to write drunk and edit sober, which I don’t necessarily recommend. There’s a kernel of truth here, though.
If you can relate at all, think of the time and energy it takes to sober up from that fabulous and hilarious creature you were the night before. Writing is fun, for sure. It can feel like being a few sheets to the wind because you’re living inside your text, your story, or sales page. It’s easy to get a little lost and wild-eyed.
That’s why it’s so important to let yourself down easy before you pick up that double-spaced document and start hacking away. A discerning editor is always level-headed, friendly, and sensible. The writer of the first ugly draft, not so much.
As the editor of your own first ugly draft, you have to learn to step out of your writer’s shoes and become that helpful editor. It takes time and a shift in attitude.
When you pick up that red pen, your main job is to make your writing as palatable as possible for your reader — not to stifle your creativity, and not to placate the writer.
Do these five things and you’ll make the transition from average writer to awesome writer, serving your reader with writing that’s clear, entertaining, and easy-to-read.
What about you? What do you do to make editing the first draft easier?
Dog pic: Flickr CC, Megan Ann
Conversation pic: Flickr CC, Okko Pyykko
Drawing in Sand pic: Flickr CC, Dmitri B.’s photostream