The Joy of Drafting

typewriter
“Typewriter” by Amy Dame, via Flickr

“Writing is starting.”

“Writing is finishing.”

Yay! Now that I have those two quotes down—I heard them somewhere and will check them later*—I have conquered a blank screen. I have started writing. I have an idea in my head of what this post will be. I scrawled a few notes on a notepad beside the bed about a week ago. Now with a space in the calendar, I finally sat down to try it out.

If this post sounds a little stream of consciousness, it is because I am drafting. When I am drafting, I am trying to turn off the editor and JUST GO. Usually when I write, I never get up too much of a head of steam because I fall into the trap of revising as I go. Computers let us do that. Back in the day, you just tore out the paper from the typewriter and crumpled it up and started again. At least, that is the classic image of the writer in movies, agonizing over starting. And then, the music comes up and we see him or her typing and motoring along with inspiration as the words just flow through the fingers.

Today, maybe the equivalent image would be someone on a computer screen, deleting several tries and then finally getting into the flow. It doesn’t translate as well to screen, but then writing never really looks like it does on TV. (Does anything?) Me, it’s sitting down at all that’s the challenge.

When I have an assignment, it usually has a deadline, which is the ultimate motivator, along with the promise of some money at some point in what I hope is the near future. And the deadline means the sitting and writing shall be done at some point, because I like hitting my deadlines as much as I like writing in a clean house with alphabetized CDs.

Another saying: “I hate writing, I love having written.” Dorothy Parker also reportedly said two of her favourite words were “Cheque enclosed.”

Personally, I love typing. I love the sound of typing. I feel good when I’m typing. Breathe. Thinking. Keep typing. It’s the music we crave.

Speaking of music, I love drafting to music. When I need to write, or when I need to have written, I put on beautiful, motivating rock. When I’m editing, it’s non-distracting classical piano like Chopin or instrumental jazz like Brubeck or Bechet. But for writing, nothing gets the fingers moving like Led Zeppelin. I think I’ll put it on now.

There. Houses of the Holy Physical Graffiti, disc 1, because I want to hear “Kashmir.” (Edit: I always get those two albums mixed up, because the image of the building on the cover throws me off.)

If I even think of Facebook, I have to go check it. Resist, resist.

Once I get started with a piece of writing, the thing I love about drafting is the freedom. The piece is nothing yet, so it could be anything. And if I can turn off that revisional urge to shape it while it’s still a heap, it can be. I’m not just talking about creative writing, but also copy writing, in which the final product has to be extremely focused, catchy and, these days, short.

Copy writing will also be relentlessly scrutinized and revised before unleashing to the world, so drafting is the part of the process where it’s just me and a bunch of ideas and more than a few naughty thoughts. Shocking words and dirty mind: it’s all part of the process. Drafting is the party—it’ll get cleaned up eventually, so never mind the mess and inappropriate language.

Maybe that’s my editor talking again. I suppose I look at drafting as a reductionist process—if you can get the words out in a big block of text, you then have something to carve up. You start with something and then you cut it down.

But when I think about it some more, I often work the other way too: I write ideas out in bullets and phrases and then flesh them out. It helps, sometimes, to have a skeleton to hang the details on, an outline to keep you on track. God knows, I have enough rambling essays that started with an idea, were drafted in a burst of inspiration and added onto over time, and were never finished. They’re in a folder.

The nice thing about outlining and then writing to it is that it’s non-threatening. Getting a few words and ideas out is a lot easier than trying to achieve artistic perfection out of a blank page. And it’s still something. It gets you started on the process. It’s a shape.

And you’re off.

*As it turns out, neither of my quotes was really accurate. Both are paraphrases of common writing advice. For the first, you might listen to Anne Lamott, author of the well-known book, Bird by Bird: ““Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” For the second piece of wisdom, bestselling author Neil Gaiman says, “Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.” Then again, Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck gave this advice to a friend: “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” In other words, just get started.

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