Fabulous First Draft, Horrible First Draft

By July 12, 2016Writing

happy sad

In love.

Out of love.

So it goes.

We fall madly in love with our first draft. Star-eyed and amorous, we adore what we’ve just written. The way our words came in a blur. How did we get so brilliant? We used to be just ordinary, but now, with this draft — oh dear, a Pulitzer, we’re thinking. Every word, every sentence feels sacred and fills us with wonder.

And then we floss, brush our teeth, get in bed, go to sleep.

And then it’s the next morning.

We sail over to our desk to read our amazing pages from yesterday. Ah. But wait! What happened? Somebody must have gotten hold of them and messed everything up.

It’s all so — well, ordinary.

Parts are swollen. Parts are flat.

All it takes is a little distance to shake some sense in us. Push us from eureka to yikes.

I was recently talking with a college student, the daughter of a friend of mine, who wants to be a writer. I described to her this phenomenon — how I need to exalt what I’ve just written in order to sustain myself through all the subsequent drafts it will take to produce a halfway decent piece of writing. She replied, in all innocence, “Oh, I’m not one of those people who revise. I don’t need to.”

I am one of those people who needs to revise. So, I usually begin with micro-revision. A nip, a tuck. The period — does it go here or there? Move the first paragraph so that it’s now the second paragraph.

Then I move into larger revision. A brand new beginning. Inevitably, when you change one thing, something else needs to be changed. You take the narrative in a whole new direction. Both the first paragraph and the second paragraph get cut.

James Salter, renowned writer and restless reviser, said: “To be a writer is to be sentenced to correcting.”

It’s such a shock — and disappointment — when my fabulous first draft turns horrible. But once my attachment to it loosens, I find myself level-headedly and doggedly on my way to draft #2. Then #3. Then #4. So it goes.

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