Unpolished words

One common piece of advice given to writers is not to tinker too much with your first draft. Your priority should be to get a first draft banged out as quickly as possible, then you should move on to the second draft.

This is a piece of advice I experience tremendous difficulty following. I can’t help tinkering with my first drafts, making them as good as I can. The problem with this approach is I could end up tinkering forever.

I realised my constant tinkering had become a problem when I was writing On the Moor. I eventually came up with a solution. It was a simple rule—what I though of as my golden rule… As I worked on each chapter, I was allowed to tinker with it as much as I liked, but, once I had moved on to the next chapter, I wasn’t allowed to go back and do any more tinkering with earlier chapters—or even to re-read them—until the entire first draft of the book was finished. I stuck to this rule, and it worked for me.

As I continue to work on my Darwin book, the temptation to tinker hasn’t gone away. I know tinkering slows me down, but I always try to justify it by claiming it will make writing my second draft far easier as it will require far less fine-tuning.

But this morning I watched a YouTube video by a Canadian student, Morgan, who has recently been struggling with her PhD thesis. Several minutes into the video, Morgan described ‘polishing’ the words of her first draft—which admittedly sounds far more professional than tinkering—and she said something that made the scales fall from my eyes:

It’s hard to rework already polished words. So I’m trying to leave my writing really rough and just, kind of, like, talk my way through it—it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, there’s repetitive words, etcetera—but I am getting, like, the arguments written down, in full sentences. Which I think is going to help me—but we’ll see.

It’s hard to rework already polished words… This was the bloody obvious point I’d been missing all these years! It completely invalidates my argument that getting my first draft as good—as polished—as possible will make writing the second draft easier. Au contraire, Richard, you idiot: having a highly polished first draft will make writing your second draft more difficult. You need to leave your future self plenty of slack. If you tighten up all the individual chapters in your first draft, it’s going to be much harder to chop and change them in later drafts. Your hands will be tied by your polished prose. You’ll find it more difficult to move stuff about; to make your chapters work together. By trying to get your first draft as close to a ‘finished’ product as possible, you’re painting yourself into a corner. That’s why it’s all right—or, rather, beneficial—to bang out unrefined prose in your first draft. That’s why you shouldn’t tinker with it.

The realisation that writing unpolished first drafts isn’t just about finishing them quickly, it’s about giving yourself more flexibility when it comes to the second draft, has got me buzzing. I’m not sure if it will help me kick my premature tinkering habit, but it’s an idea I’m going to do my damnedest to remember, and work to, in future.

Thank you, Morgan! And good luck with your thesis.


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