Saturday, December 31, 2011

Letting Go of Perfect: The Skinny on Writing a Rough Draft and Finishing It

A few years ago I was working at a TV station. One day another employee stopped me in the hallway and the following conversation ensued.

DUDE: Hey. I saw you the other day while you were at a red light. I waved and yelled at you but you didn't answer.

ME: Really? Where?

DUDE: Down on Main Street. By the Mexican food place.

ME: Oh. Sorry. When I'm driving I tend to be... ignorant.

Needless to say, that was not the word I was looking for. I meant oblivious. So, I just turned red and hurried off to do something else as soon as I realized I sounded like an idiot. (Ignorant, indeed.) That's the problem with talking to people – you only get one chance to find the right word.

When you're writing, it's a whole different story. And here's where we get to the point of today's post.

Rough drafts or, as some prefer to call them, first drafts are no good at all if you don't finish them. I can't tell you how many unfinished first drafts I have lodge in my virtual trunk. (Actually a computer folder labeled “Shyte”.) There they sit, lovely beginnings that serve me no purpose because in order to do anything further they must first be FINISHED.

Learning to finish a draft is hard. Here's how I handle the ingrained writer's instinct to make every word perfect the first time through. (An admirable goal, I might add, but usually counter-productive.)

First, I recite the following mantra.

Some words are better than no words.
A bad word is better than no words.
A simple word is better than an incorrect fancy word.
Poorly structured words are better than no words.

Then I write.
When I find myself searching for an obscure synonym for “black” I repeat line three of the mantra, type in “black” and keep going.
When I start analyzing whether I really want to use a gerund or should I change the sentence structure to improve flow I repeat line four of the mantra, type my gerund riddled sentence and keep going.
When I start wondering if I've gotten any email/if there's fresh coffee/whether this story sucks, I repeat line one, turn off the internet connection, promise myself a cup of coffee after I reach the end, clonk my inner critic over the head and keep going. (Are you seeing a pattern here, yet?)
When I write “he ran” and realize that's totally not the right word for the situation, I repeat line two of the mantra, tell myself “I'll fix it in post” and keep going.

What about plot holes?” you say. “What if I decide I want my story to take place in Rwanda instead of Scotland? What if I don't know the scientific term for iron?”

I have a nifty system for that too.
For anything plot related I use these [ ] brackets. [I write a note, right in the middle of the story with a summary of a scene I'm not ready to write yet, a note to move the location of the story, or even just a note that says FIX THIS LATER! and put the square brackets around it for easy reference.] (One writer I know changes the font color on sections he thinks need work as he's writing to make them easy to spot during editing.)
For anything research related I use these < > brackets. Usually things like <Insert proper scientific term here> or <Find street name>.
Then I keep going.

It is a difficult skill to learn, letting your mistakes lie there until it's time to edit. But in the end, one of the most common differences between “aspiring” authors and published authors is the ability to FINISH A STORY.

When you write a rough draft it is okay for it to be utter crap. That's why we call them “rough” drafts. They can be awkward and have pieces missing and subplots dangling and poorly researched settings. Because all of that can be fixed during editing. But if the story ain't done, you won't have anything to edit.

So, repeat after me.

Some words are better than no words.
A bad word is better than no words.
A simple word is better than an incorrect fancy word.
Poorly structured words are better than no words.

Now. What have you written today?

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