Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Let the First Draft Fly, Fix the Bad Writing Later

Some of our bad writing habits are perfectly obvious to us, but we should just accept that they will be there in our first draft at the stage when it’s best to let everything hang out as we pour out our thoughts, plots, and characters onto that blank page or screen. And if one of your bad habits is similar to mine, that first very, very long sentence will have to go, but not yet. Finish the first draft before moving on to revision, the next step on the long journey to a finished manuscript.

Anne Lamott wrote a wise and witty book in which she encourages writers to be themselves when they write. This is from a review of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions for Writing and Life:

"Down-to-earth, sometimes personal, and often funny, her approach to writing rang true with me throughout the book. For instance, her belief in "shitty first drafts" was a welcome reminder that it's not going to come out right the first time around:

[Lamott wrote:] ‘I know some great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much...Very few writers know what they're doing until they've done it.’

Passages like these remind us that it's OK to be human, to produce uninspired work and to feel, at times, discouraged. Lamott is very frank with her own struggles, which makes my own seem infinitely more acceptable." – From a review by Ginny Wiehardt, About.com

I read Lamott’s essay, "Shitty First Drafts," for Trevor Herriot’s creative nonfiction course. My classmates and I started to refer to our inadequate first efforts as SFDs. Sounding like some transmittable disease, the concept is nonetheless very liberating. Given permission to write freely without worrying about context, sentence order, even grammar and spelling, I threw out my old expectation that words fall pristine to the page, never to be changed. Most of us do not write pearls of wisdom, or perfect dialogue and scintillating action between characters, on our first attempt. What we do is get down all the half-formed thoughts, wisps of plot that have been lurking in our heads, and glimmers of character traits waiting to leap out. We begin to capture the essence of our novel, short story, or personal essay. Trevor recommended shutting out all possible distractions, including print and electronic media, while writing the first draft. This allows for digging down deep for every relevant idea and thought.

After the SFD is done, then comes the time to identify the strengths and weaknesses in our writing. Effective revision begins with awareness of some areas which may need refinement:

Sentence structure and logical order of events: Do sentences flow coherently without awkward constructions? Does the plot carry the reader logically through the action of the story? Are concepts in the right order for complete understanding? Is suspense created by facts withheld, then revealed at the critical moment? Sometimes it is necessary to turn sentences back to front and to change the order of scenes for better effect.

Grammar and style issues: Do sentences ramble through the paragraphs, tacking on one clause after another in a convolution of ideas that confuse rather than enlighten? Time to go back to that first sentence, to chop it into shorter bits that grab the reader’s attention without losing meaning. Examine every word to ensure it is essential to the story. Tense, voice, and point-of-view must be carefully reviewed for inconsistencies and appropriateness. Is it counter-productive to write "I threw out ..." then a few lines down switch to "we begin to ..." followed later by "do sentences ramble...?" I would think so! Back to the drawing board, and decide which it’s going to be, Helena.

Oh, yes, spelling and punctuation: Relying on spell-check functions in word processing programs can lead to disastrous results. Perfectly correct spellings may be totally wrong for the context: weak instead of week, meet instead of meat, or while instead of wile, to name a few. This is where the copy editing skill of a fellow writer in a writing group is invaluable.

Apostrophes! The bane of my life. Used incorrectly on signs, menus, and billboards all the time is one thing, but misused apostrophes in a manuscript that purports to be polished – inexcusable. Simple test for the little bugbear word, "it’s." Always try it out in full. If "it is"does not fit the sentence, leave out the apostrophe. "Its" is the possessive, as in "the dog ate its food." Pretty basic stuff, but a mistake that frequently slips into print in spite of our vigilance.

So, now I have had my little rant (and didn’t even talk about commas). Have you thought of bad habits you know exist in your writing? I resisted using parentheses until a moment ago because I know I use bracketed comments excessively. Also have to curb my long-g-g sentences. What is your pet peeve about things that escape the copy editor’s eye in newspapers and books? On the other hand, are you glad to know a "shitty first draft" is okay?


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Excellent post Helena, and something I seriously need to remember. It's hard for me to just write and not worry about repeated words, poor sentence structure, and such. I have to force myself to go on if something isn't polished... and I usually polish rather than force.

My bad habits... excessive use of dashes to connect thoughts -- you know, instead of parentheses -- and some definitely long-winded sentences. My early university essays had a lot of marks for comma splices and such, which has helped with my creative writing. I've gotten the habit of keeping things short and punchy when writing arguments, so I try to remember for prose... unless I want longer, slower, sentences to create a pace.

Broader foibles, exposition (I love dramatic monologues... but internal ones are boring for everyone else), description (I love finding vivid and creative ways to conjure up an image), and similarly poetics (as in I love creative metaphors or conceits for description... and sometimes I get so caught up in the clever metaphor, I don't stop to realize it makes no sense with the context).

Pet peeves, excess connecting words and unnecessarily wordy sentences (this is thanks to one of my best and pickiest profs). Things like 'that', which we use in speech a lot but don't need in writing, and roundabout things like 'due to the fact that'.. which is both overly wordy and also incorrect. Passive sentences also bug me (like the previous sentence.. though I fixed this one in time). Again, same prof to blame. I'm hyper-aware of to-be verbs now, so it not only bugs me when I find excess of them in poor fiction or lazy articles, but it bugs me that I keep noticing them. What happened to those carefree days of objects with no subject?

And that's my midnight novella in reply... I will keep your words on SFD's in mind.

Helena said...

Hayley, I know what you mean about wanting to polish as you go. I'm like that, too. (Tempting to use dashes here, but won't. Oops, I can't resist parentheses!) I had to stop revising my first chapter, so I could get on with the story.

You raise a good point about how pace can be altered by longer sentences, and there is certainly a case to be made for using a variety of lengths for various purposes. As long as they are well-constructed.

Sometimes the clever metaphor is the last thing dropped from my drafts. In the final analysis, if I can't justify the purpose I simply have to kill off the baby.

Love your list of pet peeves. So many of them pop up in my early drafts, but carefully cutting them out always helps to get my word count down, if nothing else.

Now, for a bit of a disclaimer -- I (purposely) left at least parts of my post in a somewhat SFD condition. To illustrate some points, I suppose. Gives people the opportunity to tear apart what is right before their eyes. So tear away!

Karen said...

Great post Helena. I like to turn of the spell and grammar check when writing a first draft because I find it physically impossible to ignore those colored underlines. I liked our last Saturday's guest blogger, Judith Glad, comment about turning off the monitor and just typing. I might try it.

My bad habits include using the word 'took' excessively. I'm also very attached to the words also, just, and the phrase I think. Comma use confuses me. My writing is sparse and I find it hard to beef it up but that's my style I guess.

Like Hayley I've developed a distaste for the words that and was and passive writing. It ticks me off because it's affecting my reading for pleasure.

ban said...

helena, was just gonna put up a post about 'writing through' swear it but decided to read before i wrote (again) your's goes into much greater detail than mine will though.
as to my own writing style and ticks: when i write informally, like now or on my blog i tend to make things as concise as possible (even though i wouldn't mind a bit more substance) and i too suffer from parenthesites, dashites, a huge distaste for capitals (it slows me down) and a severe case of ...
when i'm working on my wip it's the typical misuse of commas and the need to over describe things because i want the reader to see things EXACTLY as i do. think that's part of the illustrator still stuck in me trying to get out.
YES HAYLEY ! i have such an aversion to 'that' i almost cring when i HAVE to type it - had no idea that bothered anyone else - thought it was just a personal annoyance :D
could you please explain a passive sentence though ...

Helena said...

Hi, Karen!

Thanks for your thoughts. When I read Judith's recommendation about the monitor, all I could think of was the resulting lines I'm sure I would get -- dp,yjomh kikr tjid (something like this). Get your fingers one key off position, and yikes!

And yes, I have to go through and delete instances of 'just' and other useless words and phrases, 'as well as,' 'for instance,' etc.

Helena said...

Thanks, ban! I'm sure your comments on 'writing through' will have your unique take on the topic, so go for it. There will always be someone who will benefit from your thoughts. I had to be convinced it was the way to go.

I admire the people who can dash off a quick comment or a concise email without worrying about the look, the dangling prepositions, and stuff like that. I get hung up on details, and what should be a 'fast msg' gets treated like an essay.

It is more effective to write in active rather than passive voice. An example of passive would be: "The ball was thrown over the fence by Tom." A more vivid and lasting impression of the same action would be to use the active voice: "Tom heaved the ball over the fence."

Thanks for visiting us today.

Helena said...

Just to let those who come by in the next few hours that this Chick is on her way to the city for a meeting. So I'll be silent for a few hours. I'll pick up the thread later in the day, so keep watching!

Obviously, from the comments so far, there is so much more that could be said on today's topic. I feel I barely scratched the surface. I'm learning so much from the rest of you today.

Thanks for dropping by.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Great post. Not long ago I started giving myself permission to write the first draft without worrying about how lousy it was. To paraphrase Nora Roberts: I can clean up a mess, but I can't fix a blank page.

My first drafts are such a mess I don't let anyone see them until I have a chance to polish them a bit. I do so many things wrong in a first draft: I use too many cliches, I use too many "to be" verbs and other weak verbs, too many thats and justs, too many repetitions of words. There's always a lot to clean up. But hopefully when I finish my first draft I will have the bare bones of a story that works.


Captain Hook said...

How write you are, Helena! First drafts suck. No way around it.

My worst habit is that my first draft looks more like a script - virtually zero narration. It's all dialogue.

Then of course there's my short paragraphs/chapters thing. My critters yelled at me once for leaving a chapter at only 250 words.

Oh! And I always put in the mundane like the MC going to the bathroom.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana's comment reminded me my other issue with polishing. My husband reads my chapters as I go along, so I'm not comfortable to let things lie stagnant. I think I need to at least wait until the end of a chapter before editing and moving on. It would help.

Ban, as Helena said, passive sentences have no subject, or the subject is displaced. My Irish Lit prof (who I can thank for my pet peeves, above) described it well. A passive sentence is like a sports car... sleek body, new stereo, gorgeous paint... but instead of an engine, you have a squirrel. You rev the engine, and it just goes "are".

Anita Mae Draper said...

I love first drafts. I'd rather write first drafts than work on polishing any day!

A first draft is the creation stage. I'm a pantser hybrid. I have main goals my characters much reach at certain parts in the ms, but the road they use to get there is a mystery which unfolds as I travel it with them. There are no traffic signs on this road. Nor are there painted lines on the surface. And, sometimes even the width is blurry. It's the road called Freedom and I love it!

The second draft is reality. The traffic signs go up. Dotted lines appear in the middle of the road and solid on the sides. I must stay on my side and follow the rules. Boring. I hold off on revisions as long as I possibly can thinking they stifle my creativity. And yet, when I finally start revisions and begin to play with the words, twisting and turning them to see what else they could mean, I find them fascinating.

Good post, Helena.

Silver James said...

The hardest "bad" habit I had to break was editing as I wrote. I never finished the MS because I was always going back and "fiddling" with earlier chapters. The best thing I did to break the habit was participate in National Novel Writing Month, each November. For thirty days, I HAD to churn out at least 1700 words a day. NO time to edit or worry about head-hopping POV, he said/she said or this-and-thats. LOL

Yes, "that" is one of my crutch words and I always have to delete them the second time around. I am getting better about it, as I am about POV, too. It's still hard not to edit as I go, however.

Helena, I've heard wonderful things about Anne Lamott's book. I'm adding it to my wish list right now. Thanks for a great post today! I needed the reminder. :)

Janet C. said...

Just for you, Helena - since you commented on apostrophes!

Now, I'm terrible for run-on sentences, dashes, dots, parentheses, and - wait for it - THAT! Passive sentences - all over that, urg - stupid word. And I have a bad habit of starting most of my sentences with he or she. I also am finding that writing on a computer make me want to edit, change, re-write. Writing with pad and paper seems to stop the inner editor/critic.

Thanks for blogging on SFDs, Helena. I love Bird by Bird - and my copy sits close by my desk.

Janet C. said...

Sorry, brilliant Janet thought she knew how to embed a webpage :(

You'll have to copy/paste

Hopefully it works.

Helena said...

Hi Jana. I like the Nora Roberts quote -- I've heard it before but didn't know who said it.

I agree that first drafts are too messy to show to anyone, but I often inflict them on my writers' group anyway. We discuss the plot and emerging characters more than style and grammar. Their comments are very helpful. So I guess that's how I get my bare bones draft. Lots of revision and polishing still to do after that.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Helena said...

Captain Hook, you and I start at opposite ends of the pole, altho I think I am improving with a better mix of dialogue and narrative. My initial inclination is to tell the story, so of course the challenge is to go back and do a lot of showing -- through dialogue and action.

Your approach is fine because you obviously start with the kernel of the story, then as I've heard other writers describe their process, you have to layer in a lot of other details to flesh it out -- description, some back story, narrative transitions, etc. Not to mention leaving out any unnecessary stuff that doesn't do anything to further the story, er, bathroom scenes(?)

Always enjoy your visits.

Helena said...

Anita, I just love hearing about all the different approaches writers take. You are the dreamer of dreams, the spinner of tales, and I can understand that you are reluctant to impose rules and structure on such a fantastic world.

You are the only one who can judge how long that part of the creative process should go on. I say milk it for all it's worth. (I was amazed in my current story when a character I didn't even know showed up and became very real to me as he interacted with Fiona. I did create a woman friend for her to talk to -- need for dialogue -- but this man? I don't know where he came from.)

One thing I would say, tho, is that I really consider the revision, polishing, refining part of the process to be very creative as well. Could call it the engine that makes the beautiful sleek vehicle that Hayley referred to run so powerfully.

(I hope to get back to your blog which I read quickly this morning with not enough time for adding a comment before I had to leave for the city)

Helena said...

Silver, I relate totally to what you are saying about the urge to fine tune as you go. I had at least ten drafts of a prologue, for heaven's sake, before I could make myself forge ahead to write more chapters.

I have also changed that pattern (similar to your experience) by participating in our annual January exercise of BIAW --Book in a Week. The SRW guideline is that each participant sets her own goal which is announced to the group and tracked each day. It should consist of new writing, not revision, altho we can choose to spend our time revising if we wish. This past Jan. I aimed for 2500 new words a day, and met my goal! Can't maintain that pace every day except for short periods, but it is possible to keep what Janet calls her Evil Editor at bay for a while.

I'm glad you enjoyed the topic today.

Helena said...

Janet, you're so far ahead of me. Cut and paste ... embed... newfangled stuff (grumble, grumble). But of course I'll give it all a try sooner or later. I did manage to copy and paste my post to blogger this time. Hooray!

You will be interested to know that Trevor Herriot always writes his first draft in longhand. He encouraged his students to do so as well for the very reason you mentioned. Seems easier to resist the editorial itch. He goes so far as to say that even the next draft should be handwritten before that marvellous invention (word processing) kicks in. What I would have given for WP when I was doing essays at university!

My day has been busy so I will have to check out the apostrophe situation later. Thanks for the link. And for the encouragement. Much appreciated.

Molli said...

Hello Helena. I concur / empathize / agree / etc...... When I read Bird by Bird I liked a lot of her messages, and the idea of a poopie (sorry--just staying in practice for my granddaughter) first draft was new to me. I still fall prey to the urge to edit as I go, but I'm getting better at letting the words flow. Like Janet, I'm better at it with pen and paper than on the computer screen. I did try it once with the monitor off, and I'll no doubt do it again sometime, but the results were interesting (to say the least) when my fingers slipped over a key.

I like what you said about capturing the essence of the work--it's something I'm going to include in my sticky note reminders. As for revision time, I always find that I've written at least one one-sentence paragraph amongst the run-on sentences that are alive and well in my ms. Sometimes I leave them be, but usually they need some tough love to cut and tighten. And my pet peeve about published work that slips by the copy editor isn't grammar, or spelling, or format--it's the old "she started with blue eyes and now has brown" situation.

Some good points here, thanks.

Helena said...

Hi Molli! Good to see you here. I like your tough love analogy. That's sometimes what it takes. Like the clever metaphors that Hayley clings to until she has to let them go (if they are not contributing), there are often phrases, bits of description, that we have to cut adrift no matter how sentimental we get over them.

I agree with your pet peeve. That type of inconsistency really jars me. I have a thing about chronology, so I find myself calculating ages, span of time elapsed, etc. and the numbers have to add up or I am not happy.

Thanks for sharing your ideas.