I teach high school English, so of course, I give a lot of writing advice to my students. It’s my job, after all, to teach young people how to write. And for years, I’ve passed on the two “golden rules” of writing, the same essential words of wisdom that I learned from my own mentors: 1. All rough drafts suck, and 2.) Writing is rewriting.
And yet… When I think of some of my best writing — the stuff that soared and sang from my pen and felt true from the first word — much of it came fully formed on the first draft, with only a few minor touches and polishes coming afterward in the editing phase. If I’m totally honest with myself, my rough drafts didn’t suck at all. In fact, they were usually right on the mark. The only revision I really needed to do was clean up some prose, fix a few grammar issues, maybe add a line or two here or there, and cut out a few extraneous bits. But the works themselves — whether essay, poem, story, or article — were anything but sucky. And those times when the first draft truly was bad, even in revision, I couldn’t fix it all that much. There is one time — and only one time — when I remember revising an essay multiple times and making it really good.
So I’m not saying revision or editing are bad things. I have had to polish and do minor edits on most everything I’ve written. But the whole “first draft is crappy” thing? I’m kinda not buying it (at least not in my case). In my case, if the first draft is bad, it’s a sign I need to write a new draft, not try to revise the bad one. It’s a sign that something was off about that first try, and that the way to go is to give it ANOTHER try, not try to polish something that’s no good.
What’s got me thinking about all of this is my decision to start the Thirteen Treasures of Britain over from scratch. There were too many things in the first draft that I didn’t like, that didn’t work. Instead of trying to patch the first draft into a Frankenstein’s monster of a story, I decided to simply start over, to write the whole thing new from the beginning. Perhaps this IS a form of revision, but for me, it doesn’t feel like revision; it feels like a new start, a new story. And this story, this new creation, is already much better than the old one. Yes, I will still need to edit and polish, but this time, I won’t be working with a sucky draft. I’ll be working with a draft that soared and sang and felt true from the first word.
Realigning my thinking when it comes to drafts and revisions means that I’m not forcing myself to write everyday. I check in with my draft nearly everyday — reading bits here and there, adding or changing things as needed, keeping my enthusiasm and imagination charged — but I don’t feel required to plop down 250 words at the end of the night after the baby’s in bed and I’m tired from the day’s work. Because those 250 dead-eyed, zonked-out words are usually crap, and when I read them the next day, I end up deleting them all. What good are 250 words if they’re totally irredeemable?
So I don’t write everyday. I write when I feel fresh. When I have a good chunk of time to devote to thinking. When the story is clicking. And if the story isn’t clicking, if the effort feels strained, if I’m writing garbage, I stop. And I come back to it another day. I try a different chapter or a different type of writing. I don’t force things, because when I force things, I end up with a lot of splintered and broken things. And there’s no way for me to fix something once it’s splintered.
If this seems like I’m breaking the number one rule of writers (i.e.: write everyday), then yes, I’m breaking that rule. What can I say? I’m a rebel. I always have been, so why change now? I tried the conventional “write everyday,” “first drafts suck,” “don’t get it right, get it written,” and frankly, those conventional ways don’t work for me. And perhaps that’s the point of this post. When it comes to writing, there is no ONE way of doing anything.