All The Small Things: Shitty First Drafts and Editing

09 Feb

By now, everyone has probably heard the cliche that everyone writes shitty first drafts.  It’s not true, of course.  Some people go straight from first draft to best-seller, and it’s okay to hate those people.  In aggregate, if not as individuals.

But for most people, there are rounds of editing, critique, beta reading, and revision, or some personal combination thereof.

The reason for this is that there are so many little things, no matter whether you write literary or pulp, or in between, that you have to keep track of to create a first draft that can go straight to the press.  This is especially true for long-form prose or any kind of poetry.

For example:

1. Using verbs or perception or thought:  “It seemed like…”, “Michael knew that…”, “Mandy heard…”.  For some styles or some writers, that’s something to avoid.  And it’s so natural in many people’s casual writing, or in oral story-telling/conversation, that it can take many careful passes to make sure it’s all edited out–or not.  (I like to call these “distancing verbs”, because they often create a sense of distance between a narrator/character and the read.)

2. Punctuation:  Are you using Oxford commas, commas between fronted adverbial phrases and the main sentence, colons, commas, or em dashes? 

3. Showing vs Telling:  No matter your preference, it can be hard to be consistent.  Or maybe getting the scene down quickly is more important that the specifics of the prose.  Or perhaps in a certain scene, it’s more effective to tell the reader how a character feels.

4. Pet words and phrases:  Many authors have words or phrases that they use constantly in their work, usually unconsciously.  It can cut across genres and styles.  S.M. Stirling uses the phrase “cloven air” constantly in his Change series to describe the flights of arrows.  It annoyed the crap out of me, though I liked the books for the most part.  David Eddings constantly has his characters telling each other to “Be nice.” throughout his books.  These things can be much less obvious, though.


There are tons more.  The point is, though, it’s almost impossible to keep every single one in your head at the same time.  Your brain is already keeping track of so much language junk unconsciously, just forming thoughts or speaking.  I know I often have the experience of reading a blog post, or listening to a podcast, and the author/speaker will mention some word-level writing topic, and give some fantastic advice.  And I’ll realize I’ve heard that before, from someone else, thought it just as awesome, and vowed always to remember it.  But then I’ll completely forget that specific detail I wanted to keep track of when writing a story or poem.

And there are dozens if not hundreds of these little issues.  Some writers resort to making lists of them for when they edit, or even making specific editing passes to account for them.  So the next time you’re on your fifth draft, and you realize that you’ve found another “you’re” instead of “your”; or that you just used three distancing verbs in the same sentence; or you’re on your fourth pass for passive voice, and you found four examples on the current page, just remember that everyone has that problem, and it’s completely normal.

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Posted by on February 9, 2014 in Uncategorized


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