Free Yourself in the First Draft
Monday, June 18, 2012 Expert Advice
By Julia Cox, Writing Consultant
American writer Isaac Singer once lamented, “The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.” Even though we now have a metaphorical wastebasket via the delete button, Singer’s sentiment remains true. Sometimes the best route to a good piece of writing is a truly horrible and scattered first draft.
There is a grand illusion that writing of any kind is a singular event—that The Great Gatsby was written in one sitting, or that Will Smith composed the lyrics to "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" on a whim. All forms of writing take time and revision, academic papers included. Setting aside the pressure to produce an immediately perfect piece can actually create a more effective drafting process. Here are some tips for getting that first draft down—minus the pressure:
- Understand the assignment. This step can be key, as sometimes a miscommunication or a lingering question from coursework prevents you from knowing what you need to write in the first place.
- Brainstorm. Every writer has his or her own method of idea mapping. Some scribble on blank paper. Others organize on notecards. I personally doodle and deface my bedroom walls. (I’m actually not joking. I converted a wall of my room into a whiteboard with this magic potion called Idea Paint).
- Outline. This activity can’t be stressed enough, as outlining will prevent an organization disaster later. Even if you end up deleting and replacing some paragraphs, the “bones” of your essay will be there. Outlining helps you sort through and group your ideas. Think of it as feng shui for your essay.
- Type. Let the fragments and typos fly. Worrying about perfecting every sentence only slows down the larger process. It’s kind of like making cookies. Get everything onto the cookie sheet and then clean up the kitchen.
- Mark trouble spots. This way, you can easily go back to revise, rather than shifting through the text. *Starring, bolding, and highlighting all work. I personally leave myself notes in ALL CAPS, but that can have the effect of the paper screaming, so it may not be for everyone.
- Take a break. The best thing about a first draft is that it’s a first draft. A little time away will only help you go back with a set of clean eyes. So, yes, I am condoning a Law and Order marathon as a potentially helpful part of the writing process.
If your Word document resembles multicolored brain vomit, you have succeeded. Some initial drafts of mine could even pass for kindergarten art projects. The good news is that revising and editing usually go a bit faster once an initial draft is complete. For more tips on writing a first draft, check out our resources on prewriting and outlining.