First Draft Writing Vs. Tweaking and Re-writing

trees-moon-fantasy-art-hd-wallpaper-you-are-viewingI’m now about midway through the third draft of my first book, a memoir, tentatively titled Moonchild.

Well, that is, first book if you don’t count the “book” I wrote in high school, a novel about a group of teenagers on a cabin trip who discover that they are vampires and struggle with how to deal with that. I wrote it all, and edited a lot, then sent it to a friend’s English teacher (since I wanted the opinion of someone who didn’t know me, who’d be unbiased), and edited some more. I looked back at it while in college and was mortified, and so glad I’d never done anything with it!

So, now here I am, ten years later, working on another book and right in the middle of the re-writing process.

Years ago, on a forum I used to frequent (which no longer exists), a friend posted one of Rob Brezsny‘s Free Will Astrology Horoscopes. I wish I could find it or remember it verbatim, or even which sign it was for. I can’t though, so I’ll just sum it up. It was about creativity and how advice in the arts goes from, “Whatever you put out first is the best, most true piece of work, don’t edit,” to people who suggest re-working a piece to the point of exhaustion. In the books I’ve read on writing and the classes I’ve taken, it’s true that the philosophy teeters between the two.

Well, I have three planets in LIbra. Granted, they’re distant, slow-moving planets, but still I feel a compulsion to try to balance the two extremes.

I love first-draft writing, sitting down in a chair and pouring my soul out onto paper, following the muse down any tangential wormhole. I love not knowing where I’ll end up. I love the litle scenic detours into uncharted territory, the free associative, unconscious connections. That’s not to say it’s stream-of-consciousness writing, not really. It just happens that a lot of times I’ll be writing about one story and get sidetracked into telling another, and another. I remember details I didn’t consciously keep in mind or even have access to before I started writing. I love the raw writing, and I feel that sometimes there’s ligtning in it, a quickness, connections and leaps I would never come to if I was in my editor’s head and thinking too much about what I was doing. Sometimes the most unique, unedited, beautiful truth comes out.

But I have to say, just because something comes out raw and gorgeous and true, doesn’t mean it comes out in finished form, or even readable. Sometimes I need to mold it into a more concrete story, taking out the tangents and extraneous characters who don’t add to the narrative. Sometimes I realize the real juice is in the tangents and I have to draw them out, integrate them into the story, or make them their own separate short stories.

Sometimes in trying to get at a feeling or mood in the first draft, I’ll describe it in several different ways, and in re-working it I have to choose the description that is the most precise for what I want to convey, or craft that precise description out of the several different ways. Sometimes in first draft writing I’ve written something out of habit and I need to look underneath that habit to get at the core of something. Sometimes my first attempts have a lot of telling and summary and I need to go back and enter the stories more completely and tell them in their wholeness, as scenes. Sometimes I need to make it more alive. Sometimes I need to cut entire sections that I love because they’re distractions. Sometimes I find that I only scratched the surface of something difficult and I need to go back and live inside the grit for a bit so I can bring that out and fully explore it in the story.

Sometimes it’s really hard work. Sometimes I read an original version of a chapter and want to throw a tantrum because it seems so unfixable.

But you know, I also look at it, even if it can be a ton of work and a pain in the ass at times, and think that the fact that I’m so frustrated by earlier work is a sign of growth as a writer. If I looked back at first versions and thought they were perfect as is and didn’t need any work, then I’d be in the same place as I was when I wrote it. It’s probably good that I’m not, that I’m moving forward and improving my writing. I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever get to the point where my first drafts come out a lot better, and in less need of work. I don’t know what the answer to that wondering is, and if I ever find out, I’ll let you know.

My point though, is that I think both processes are equally important, and sometimes (more and more), even equally enjoyable. I think of re-writing as sifting through words for gems of lightning and polishing them off so they shine more brilliantly.

Currently Listening:
“Suggestions” – System of a Down

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4 thoughts on “First Draft Writing Vs. Tweaking and Re-writing

  1. Just saw “First Class,” a play by David Wagoner at ACT Theatre here in Seattle. It’s about Theodore Roethke, a great American poet, and what it was like to take a poetry class from him at UW in the 1960s. In it Roethke (the character) says when you first write a poem it looks perfect and you feel so proud and you’re just walking on air. But, he says, DON’T RE-READ IT THEN! It’ll do no good. Just put it away, let it sit, and come back to it later with fresh eyes.I thought this was interesting advice especially as it is often true in my own experience that I can see things later that I don’t see initially about my writing. Also, in terms of balancing work and writing, which you discussed in another post, it also suggests that taking time away can be a good thing.Just not too much time away. ;)Happily Even After,Janna

  2. Hey Janna,

    Thanks for the comment! I totally agree about the time away. Sometimes I need lots of time in between, to let something sit, before seeing it again with fresh eyes, as you put it. Stephen King says something similar in On Writing, which I loved. Always good to see you around!

    ~EJ

  3. I’ve seen some stuff that looked like the author just put the rough draft out there without any editing or proofreading, and it didn’t make a real favorable impression. I totally agree with the idea of getting the stuff in your head own on paper while the spirit moves you, but a little editing is good too.

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