First, Final Draft


Last time, I told you the phenomenon of writers being taught to draft and redraft their work is mostly a late-20th and early 21st century idea. And the today, I’m going to talk a bit about the reason for that mentality, and why it’s relatively new.

Of course, the answer’s pretty simple, and it has to do with faster methods of writing.

Think about it: authors like Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, Mary Shelley, or even Shakespeare for that matter, couldn’t pop open their laptop and fire up Word or Scrivener and start banging keys. They took out a parchment, sheet of paper, scroll, or some other finite physical medium, dipped a real pen – probably crow quill – and scrawling their words, as neatly as they could, across that live medium.

But it’s probably more than that. Even in the first part of the 20th century, great writers who made their money writing and selling stories to magazines and publishing houses, didn’t have much more than typewriters to hammer on and produce their wares.

Now, I’ve recently discovered that the pulp master authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – including people like the aforementioned Mr. Dickens – got paid by the word. They didn’t get paid to revise, they got paid to create.

Lester Dent wrote so many stories it’d make your head spin if you knew them all. People like Bradbury, Burroughs, Conan Doyle, Howard, and a ton of others I can’t name because I’m poorly read, all got paid by the word. Some of these writers became very rich being paid a penny a word.

The idea of rewriting was a foreign one to them, for the most part. They were also excellent typists, because in the early part of the 20th century, if there were more than ten corrections on a page, the writer had to resubmit the page.

You can easily see where this is going. If the writer is pumping out hundreds of stories, thousands of words at one cent per word, they had to keep a steady stream of income moving to stay afloat, never mind get rich. And they didn’t get paid to rewrite. They only rewrote to editorial request.

Only rewriting when necessary is reflected in Robert Heinlein’s famous Rules of Business, commonly referred to as Heinlein’s Rules. Those rules, often dismissed or ridiculed by modern-era writers, were offered by a well-established professional writer to help aspirants become professionals. And Heinlein himself owned up to the difficulty in keeping all five of the rules, and pointed to that difficulty as the reason there were so many aspirants, and so few working professionals.

I’d agree, even today. Those rules are tough to follow.

But note above, only modern-era writers are disparaging Heinlein’s rules, because they believe in the necessity of rewriting repeatedly to create something worth publication.

And that idea couldn’t exist – at least, not for working professional writers – until it became relatively easy and quick to make revisions to a manuscript.

Enter the era of electronic gadgetry.

Once writers got hold of tools like word processors, and later computers and software, where the words existed on the screen before being printed irrevocably on the page, the game changed. Now, someone could revise their manuscript with a few button clicks. They didn’t have to use correction tape or paint, re-align the page, and type the correction, or slip in a new sheet of page and hammer out the whole thing over again to fix the error(s).

Writing became lazier. And the idea of repeated drafts was born.

Now the idea is propagated regularly that the first draft is a bad one, and must be cleaned up in subsequent drafts, each making improvements on the last. But think about this from the perspective of the writers of the past. Every moment they spent rewriting their manuscript was a moment they spent not producing pay. And every word they rewrote is a word they’re not being paid to write. With every moment precious, every word worth a penny, how much time do you think they spent rewriting unless they were asked to do so?

Let’s be honest, they didn’t do that. And the fact is, today we don’t have to do that either. It’s not any harder to put down the best words you have at your disposal than it is to sling bad ones out. Most working authors can manage, without much strain, a thousand words an hour of new fiction. There are various methods for improving that number, but on average, that’s about what lots and lots of working pros produce, even with computers and software and all the gadgetry. And that would include cycling back over the words you’ve produced to ensure they’re the best work you can produce at the time.

But the position that the first draft is necessarily bad breeds yet another idea, which can cost writers years of their career, and that’s the notion that a story is never done.

Dean Wesley Smith, who doesn’t mind blowing the myths of writing away and revealing the “dirty li’l secrets” of working professional writers, indicates most writers he associates with, and that’s quite a few, are single-draft writers, whether they outline or write into the dark. They produce a single draft, the only draft, using the best of their available skill set at the time, and then move on to other projects.

The difference in mentality is striking. And the amount of time it takes to craft a manuscript plummets.

The idea that a story is never finished, another common thought among modern writers, is borne of the fact that manuscripts are so easily reworked now. But the writer has moved on. Their skills are sharper, their eye more keen. What the produced a few months ago doesn’t compare favorably to their current skills and abilities. They can rework the story again, and if they put it aside for another long period of time, and pull it out again, the same will be true.

And the story, of course, is never finished.

The idea of one-draft manuscripts scares some writers. It certainly scared me. But once I tried it, I was sold. I could do this, and I could do it well if I tried. At least, to the best of my ability. Trying hard to get it right the first time, to do my best without giving myself the excuse of a second draft coming, is a challenge.

But for me, the actual problem is, the second draft never came. I got tired of the story and if I didn’t do well the first time, there may well be no second time. So it’s actually in my best interest to do it right – or, y’know, as right as I can get it – the first pass through.

That’s a lot of opinion, but I’m not an authority. And like I’ve said before, every writer has their own path. Some of them get twitchy at the idea of a single draft.

In the end, find what works for you. But next time, I’ll discuss what Dean Wesley Smith calls “Pulp Speed” writing and how doing only one draft makes that much, much more attainable.

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One thought on “First, Final Draft

  1. I think that if more writers understood this, they’d write a lot more and not get so sick of their own stories after the 2nd, 3rd, 8th re-draft. 🙂

    I know that’s happened to me with the original Ghost Hunters story. Man, I couldn’t stomach another run through, and I was absolutely nauseated when I lost all the work I put into cleaning up the manuscript back in 2008. Ne’er ag’in!

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