Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On Writing: The Amateur Draft

If it’s one thing writers love talking about, it’s books. If there’s another, it’s the writing process. This dialogue is what drives writers to conferences—finally, a group of people who can commiserate over an unwieldy first draft or the pain of a sixteenth (or twentieth) draft! You’ve probably heard lots of writers talk about their “writing self” and their “editing self” and how they transform for each endeavor.

I’ve been working on a first draft lately. There is a constant push and pull, trying to keep the editing self at arm’s length. She watches over my shoulder, telling me when I’ve used a word too often or that I’ve started something I’ll need to resolve eventually. She makes me re-read sections when I should be moving forward. She taps her red pen on the desk when I’m trying to concentrate on being present.

There was an excellent essay in The New Yorker this week, wherein John McPhee talked about the insecurities of being a writer and his own process of writing and revision. “First drafts are slow and develop clumsily,” he writes, “because every sentence affects not only those before it but also those that follow.” He claims to have a four-to-one ratio when it comes to revision vs. writing (he spends four times as long revising), and he talks about the debilitating waves of self doubt that accompany a first draft: “If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free…if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”

At the point when the first draft is finished and your editing self takes over, McPhee claims: “Dread largely disappears. Problems become less threatening, more interesting. Experience is more helpful, as if an amateur is being replaced by a professional.” The experience is compounded, I think, because of the very nature of a first draft. Here you are, recreating the wheel, heading off into some vast expanse of your own design and if you’re really delusional (as most writers are), then you’re also trying something new in terms of style, narrative, something you haven’t tried before. It’s truly a brave new world and you feel like the sole inhabitant. A true amateur.

The editing self, on the other hand, has been through this before. She’s read hundreds (thousands!) of books. She deletes commas and unnecessary words without batting an eyelash and can slash through even the most inspired, flowery rumination, searching for the grain of truth. She’s a professional—unemotional, subjective, harsh. Her mind is always on the text. Again, McPhee: “You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem…You may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep.”

I’d argue this is the case with the first draft as well, a constant obsession with the work, no matter which draft you’re working on. It's just that the professional, the editing self, feels more assured in her task. It’s a relief when she arrives.

This is a great article with lots of concrete advice about editing. And if anecdotes about grammar excite you, the second part of the article talks about McPhee’s experiences with The New Yorker’s editors and issues of house style. Really, a must-read for writers. Link to entire piece here.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka