on writing a draft

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Tonight I'm thinking about steps to help an anxious writer compose a first draft. (I'm working with a couple of different people for whom writing does not come easily, and these are a first pass of my own at a more generalized description of the process.) The more that can be done to play to a person's strengths, the better - whether those strengths are visual, or linear, or analytical, or...  - find a way to center the process and build the project out from a place of strength and confidence.

The more that can be done to break a larger project into bite-sized pieces, the better. 

Paper with no lines can be a good thing to start with - or graph paper.  Break away from the keyboard and from writing on the lines, if you can.  You can fill a page full of one-word versions of the big ideas, then take those ideas and give each one of them a page of its own.  On those sub pages, put the one word in the middle and then surround it with components, examples, details.  

Then, and only then, turn to the keyboard and take those smaller pieces (the examples and details) and turn them from fragments into sentences. The more conversational these first draft sentences, the better.  Keep spaces between these sentences (they may well wind up in a different order), and put page breaks between your topics.

Once that's done, you can go back to the first sheet and arrange and group the big ideas in an order that feels comfortable, and use that as a way to order all the sections you've typed. Within the sections, organize and group the details and examples and put them in order.

Now that everything is in order, you can much more easily write the connecting phrases and sentences ("Another example of this theory..." "However, this is only true on alternate weekends..." etc.).  Reread all the parts you have, and you should be able to identify your main points.  Write the introductory and concluding paragraph drafts last of all.

This drafting method is almost exactly the opposite of the writing process I first learned in school: where we began with planning a thesis, writing an outline, and following the outline to create the written work.  I find it much more helpful to outline my work after I've written it, rather than before.  Then I can see if the argument is logical, because I already know what I've said.

Nick Lowe once said in an interview that his approach to songwriting was, "Bash it out now, and tart it up later."  These steps are for the "bash it out" part of the writing process.  To "tart it up" - to revise - is a process for another day.


4 Comments

(You may already know this but) Nick Lowe's nickname during his tenure as a producer at Stiff Records was "The Basher". The approach worked well. Checkout the work he did with Dave Edmunds and Elvis Costello.

Like you I was taught to write by the outline-first method. It didn't work, and I very quickly learned, that is, taught myself, to use more fragmentary, intuitive, visual and tactile approaches that you have described so well. And in those good ol' days, "cut-and-paste" meant real scissors and glue, remember!?

Nowadays, as a teacher of young children, I use the visual methods similar to those you've mentioned as a way into teaching writing. Whether it's variations on fairytales or instructions for ruling the world, I find that children write much more readily, fluently, and expansively when they begin with sketches, single words, idea maps, and storyboards which they talk up with partners, small groups, the whole class, and me, before anyone even thinks about writing a first draft. The writing comes as easily as talking then.

Sorry, that previous comment should have been signed Cate, not Cat! Meow.

Dove - I didn't know (or had forgotten) Nick Lowe's nickname. Have always been a big fan of his music, so that's cool to know.

Cate - just the way there are lots of ways to learn, I believe there are lots of ways into writing or drawing. For some people, an outline really is a comfortable and productive way to approach some writing. For others, other ways work better. Expressing complex ideas - ideas you care about - is never easy, so the more strategies you have for getting that first draft onto paper, the better. Sounds as if your students will never lack for comfortable ways to approach their writing - and we'll all be the better for hearing what they really have to say. Thanks.

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