Archive for August, 2009

The Beauty of a Terrible Rough Draft

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Many aspiring writers know that they have something meaningful to say and an original way to say it. Their problem isn’t ability or talent or interest. Their problem is getting started—putting something on the blank paper in front of them. What keeps the paper blank is often the daunting prospect of a poor first draft. Writers worry that a terrible draft will set them off in the wrong direction, or, conversely, they believe that only a perfect rough draft will ensure writing success. I argue that writers shouldn’t fear creating a terrible rough draft. In fact, a terrible rough draft can be a source of many interesting ideas.

Paradoxically, the most helpful part of the writing process isn’t writing at all; it’s editing a rough draft. During this early edit, a story begins to take shape and the argument to fully manifest itself. Characters reveal their three dimensions, and their true motivations become clear. A writer can sense the full sweep of a piece and analyze its details.

A rough draft, then, contains within it many of the good ideas that a writer will develop into a final piece. It also contains the bad ideas that a writer will remove. A sprawling, meandering rough draft—one in which the plot abruptly changes halfway through or characters appear and disappear inexplicably—can provide a writer with the most ideas to develop and with the best sense of what works and what doesn’t. A rough draft that goes in several directions at once and seems to have no overarching trajectory can often contain more hidden literary gems that a pristine, tightly controlled first draft. Thus, the goal of the aspiring writer should be to create a rough draft—any rough draft, terrible though it may be.

Of course, the frustrated writer who has yet to scribble down a single sentence might find infuriating the suggestion that he or she somehow leap from a blank page to a complete manuscript. Asking a writer to fill not just one blank page, but many, can seem ridiculous. However, I argue that a rough draft is about sheer page number, and not about quality. The rough-draft writer should set a goal length and start writing.

Writing for length only forces the writer to include every idea that comes to mind—even the most seemingly ridiculous. Ideas that seem foolish during the rough-draft stage often prove to be brilliant. In the best case, a writer might have a general idea of plot or topic—the story of a girl who learns to sail, a tale of sibling rivalry or an article about mushrooms. However, a writer with no topic or no idea will usually find that a topic or idea emerges in the writing. The main idea is just to keep writing until reaching the desired length.

A few guidelines can help the rough-draft writer.

  1. Writing about the writing process can sometimes generate good ideas. For example, a sentence like, “I want to write about a boy who invents a machine that allows him to experience life as a strawberry.” might lead to a real storyline and plot. Or “I’m trying to explain how I felt when I won the marathon but lost my job.” might help a theme coalesce.
  2. However, writers should refrain from writing too much about how badly the writing process is going. Limit the number of sentences that read something like, “I can’t write. This is awful. Nobody will ever read this.” Write more about the writing than the writer.
  3. Try not to fall into the trap of The Shining, where the novel Jack Nicholson’s character has written turns out to be one endlessly repeated sentence with varying margins and line spacing. Repeating, “This is a rough draft.” will not lead to a productive rough draft, terrible or otherwise.
  4. Do not edit before the first draft is complete. No matter how badly the writing is going, refrain from going back to rework the text. Editing a partial draft is a pitfall for many writers who refine the partial so much that they never finish the draft. If you become aware of some problem before you have finished the rough draft, make a note to yourself. This note will be valuable during the revision. (Write something like, “Brenda should actually learn about the accident after she meets Noah, not before.” or “Should this story take place in the Bahamas, not in New York City?”) Remember that the unlikeliest of ideas might later be the most fruitful. Keep them all in the rough draft, because you never know what might prove to be good, upon the first edit.
  5. Try to write without rereading what you have written until you finish the rough draft. Although you might feel as though you’re writing in the dark and you might forget some of what you wrote earlier, you will be unencumbered by earlier infelicities and missteps. On your most creative days, you can write freely, without brooding about problems at the beginning of your manuscript. Every writing session will feel like a new day.
  6. Praise yourself for each addition you make to the length of your manuscript. The longer it gets, the closer you are to having a first draft to edit.
  7. Try to write your first draft in the most bare-bones way possible. Forget about outlines, writing courses, colored pens, lucky writing charms, prompts and all other writing aids. Just write.
  8. Do not give up, even if the plot stops making sense or the argument begins to drag. The point is to reach a specific word or page limit. As you write, think about patching up problems “on the fly,” without going back to edit. Make notes to yourself if you think of something you will want to rework during the edit. (See #3.) Don’t worry if the story changes significantly as you write (the nurse main character suddenly works better as a wrestler, the unmarried main character has actually been married all along). Make the change—however dramatic—and reconcile the differences in the editing process, after you finish the first draft.

Once you have a rough draft to consider, you have something to do—a piece of writing to shape and rework and perfect. The missteps that make a first draft terrible are actually paths to its potential greatness.

[Check out my next three blog postings for examples of terrible rough drafts with great potential.]

Editing an Application Autobiography

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

Colleges and graduate schools often require brief autobiographical statements from their applicants. Although an autobiography seems a straightforward subject, many applicants find personal statements more difficult than any other essay. Applicants often have trouble refining the content of their autobiographies and establishing an appropriate focus. A narrow focus is usually the key to the most successful application autobiographies.

The following is the unedited version of a one-paragraph response to an application question that reads, “Write a brief (200 words maximum) statement describing the life experiences that you believe prepared you for this Master’s program.

Below the unedited version is my edited version of the same text. (For this particular job, I also did some rewriting of the text. ) My editorial comments are at the bottom of the post.

I believe that three life experiences prepared me for the Master’s program, and I will describe each in turn. I was born in China to American parents, and I know what it’s like to be straddling two different cultures. In China, I looked different from most other people, but I sounded the way everyone else did. I spoke fluent Chinese–and still do. In America, I fit in with my Caucasian appearance, but I feel different. I see events and situations from the perspective of the Asian culture in which I was born and raised and where I lived until university. My second life experience was that my cousin was born with a severe learning disability that made it impossible for him to go to a regular school. His parents hired tutors, but he did better when family members helped him themselves. His parents were both busy, so when I became old enough, I took over the responsibility of tutoring him. I became very interested in childhood learning and teaching methods for the disabled. I got a great deal of early practice in teaching, and I feel that this practice would be useful in the Master’s program. My third important life experience was that I helped to edit an educational textbook when I had just graduated from secondary school in China. My parents knew someone who worked at the university, and I was hired as a summertime research assistant before I went off to university myself. The book is still in print today, and it was about the effect of social context in early childhood development. I believe these three experiences make me a good candidate for the Master’s program.

After editing, the autobiography reads as follows:

I am confident that I can succeed in the Master’s program. Three separate experiences have taught me to appreciate the complexity of living in two different cultures, to understand the reality of education for those with learning disabilities, and to know the importance of the academic study of education. I was born in China to American parents, and I have straddled two different cultures my entire life.  In China, I looked different from most other people, but I spoke fluent Chinese and sounded like everyone else. In the United States, my appearance is unremarkable, but I often see events and situations from an Asian perspective. I still speak fluent Chinese and have learned to appreciate my bicultural sensibility. My educational experience had a certain duality as well, because I was a student as well as a teacher during much of my youth. My cousin was born with a severe learning disability that made it impossible for him to attend a regular school. He needed the help of tutors but worked best when a member of his family tutored him. When I became old enough, I took over the responsibility of tutoring my cousin. I became very interested in childhood learning and teaching methods for the disabled. This hands-on practice developed my ability to think creatively and spontaneously about teaching. I learned a great deal more about the academic aspects of teaching when I helped edit an educational textbook during the summer after I graduated from secondary school in China. I was particularly interested in the subject of the textbook–an analysis of the effect of social context on early childhood development, and I enjoyed working with the professor who wrote it. The book is still in print today and is very important in its field. Because of my cross-cultural background, my teaching experience with learning disability and my work in academic publishing, I believe I am a strong candidate for the Master’s degree.

Below is the piece with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

I believe that three life experiences prepared me for am confident that I can succeed in the Master’s program, and I will describe each in turn. [Rather than restate the question, it’s better to start with a strong statement about your good fit with the program itself.] Three separate experiences have taught me to appreciate the complexity of living in two different cultures, to understand the reality of education for those with learning disabilities, and to know the importance of the academic study of education. [This sentence summarizes the three life experiences you will mention and gives the reader a quick overview of the essay.] I was born in China to American parents, and I haveknow what it’s like to be straddlinged two different cultures my entire life. [I eliminated some of the unnecessary words in this sentence.] In China, I looked different from most other people, but I spoke fluent Chinese and sounded like the way everyone else did. I spoke fluent Chinese–and still do. In America the United States, [I like the parallelism of “In China” and “In the United States.” I changed “America” to “the United States,” because “America” can include Central and South America as well.] my appearance is unremarkable I fit in with my Caucasian appearance, but I often feel different. I see events and situations from the perspective of the an Asian perspective culture in which I was born and raised and where I lived until university. I still speak fluent Chinese and have learned to appreciate my bicultural sensibility. My educational experience had a certain duality as well, because I was a student as well as a teacher during much of my youth. [I use the previous two sentences to summarize your first life experience and to preview the second.] My second life experience was that my cousin was born with a severe learning disability that made it impossible for him to go to attend a regular school. Heis parents hired needed the help of tutors, but he did worked betterst when a member of his family members helped tutored him themselves. They were both busy, so wWhen I became old enough, I took over the responsibility of tutoring him my cousin. I became very interested in childhood learning and teaching methods for the disabled. I got a great deal of early practice in teaching, and I feel that this practice would be useful in the Master’s program This hands-on practice developed my ability to think creatively and spontaneously about teaching. I learned a great deal more about the academic aspects of teaching when My third important life experience was that I helped to edit an educational textbook during the summer after when I had just graduated from secondary school in China. I was particularly interested in the subject of the textbook–an analysis of the effect of social context on early childhood development, and I enjoyed working with the professor who wrote it. The book is still in print today and is very important in its field. My parents knew someone who worked at the university, and I was hired as a summertime research assistant before I went off to university myself. The book is still in print today, and it was about the effect of social context in early childhood development. I believe these three experiences make me a good candidate for the Master’s program. Because of my cross-cultural background, my teaching experience with learning disability and my work in academic publishing, I believe I am a strong candidate for the Master’s degree.

Please feel free to send me your comments about this edit. I would love to hear from you.

Learning from Hint Fiction

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Although Robert Swartwood’s new hint fiction anthology (W.W. Norton, 2010) is a compelling enough reason to write hint fiction, publication is not the only reason to write in this intriguing new genre. Crafting a successful piece of hint fiction is, in itself, an excellent writing exercise. By its very nature, hint fiction demands that its author select each word carefully and understand the pacing and timing inherent in a small collection of sentences.

Swartwood, who coined the term, defines “hint fiction” as a work of 25 words or less that suggests a larger story without telling it outright. Thus, as Swartwood says, a piece of hint fiction implies conflict and its potential outcome but does not have a traditional beginning, middle and end. Under Swartwood’s definition, hint fiction must have a title, which conveniently allows the author to convey more meaning outside the 25-word limit.

The following is an unedited piece of hint fiction. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

JURY DUTY

The women in the corner say that they think he looks innocent. I haven’t said anything, because I know how dangerous he really can be.

After editing, the piece reads as follows:

JURY DUTY

The woman in purple says, “He’s innocent. His eyes look innocent.” I don’t say anything, because I saw him that morning with the knife.

Below is the piece with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

[This story is an effective piece of hint fiction, as it suggests a larger plot without telling it directly. A few changes in word choice can make better use of the 25-word limit and convey the suggested story more pointedly and dramatically.] The women in the cornerwoman in purple [Perhaps one woman would be just as effective as more than one. “In the corner” could normally be an effective descriptor, but with so few words available to convey the storyline, it seems that you could say something that more effectively differentiates the women from the male defendant about whom they are speaking.] says, that they think he looks innocent “He’s innocent. His eyes look innocent. [Dialogue is interesting here, and repeating the word “innocent” emphasizes the woman’s assessment. The repetition also serves to highlight the narrator’s own secret knowledge.] I haven’t said don’t say anything, [The past participle—“haven’t said”—introduces a confusing time element. It isn’t necessary for the narrator to indicate a time different from the one in which the woman is speaking.], because I know what he’s really like saw him that morning with the knife. [In a longer piece, “I know what he’s really like” could introduce a more in detailed discussion of the defendant’s true nature. However, this very short piece benefits from more precision.]

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this post. I would love to hear from you.

Interesting New Market for Short, Short Fiction

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Writers of the shortest of short fiction have an interesting new market for their brief works. In a recent blog, writer Robert Swartwood solicits submissions for a new W.W. Norton anthology of hint fiction.

Shorter and more mysterious than the traditional 1,000-words-or-less flash fiction, hint fiction has a maximum word length of 25. Unlike flash fiction, hint fiction merely suggests a larger story, rather than telling it outright. However, a piece of hint fiction still manages to encompass the overarching idea of a complete story.

Read Robert Swartwood’s blog for details about the online submission process and for helpful—and enviable—examples of hint fiction. The submission deadline is August 31, 2009.

Your Autobiography—Where to Begin, What to Include

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Many of my clients at Beaumont Hardy need help editing their autobiographies or autobiographical statements. At one time or another, almost everyone needs to compose an autobiography of some length—as an application essay for a school or a job, as part of a master’s thesis or dissertation, or as a potential nonfiction book project. These autobiographies can present many challenges.

In general, I recommend that writers think of their own autobiographies as stories, sifting through facts and details until a coherent “storyline” emerges. This “storyline” will often indicate a good starting point for the autobiography and will suggest which details are worth including (or eliminating). I also suggest that writers think of themselves as characters in their autobiographies, presenting details and events in such a way that they emerge three-dimensionally and realistically. The most successful autobiographies have about them a sense of the universal—some theme or idea that speaks to all readers. A writer who discovers and highlights this universality will usually create a very readable autobiography.

These general rules usually work, but autobiographical writing often requires the guidance of an outside editor. Because writers of autobiographies are, by definition, very close to their subject matter, an editor can help them choose details and descriptions that will most effectively present their own stories. I have helped many authors resolve the most common autobiographical dilemmas to produce concise, compelling autobiographies and autobiographical statements.

The first dilemma in writing an autobiography is to determine its scope. The contents of an autobiography are limited only by one’s lifespan. Thus, an autobiography could conceivably begin at the writer’s birth and exhaustively detail every moment until the writer’s last breath. Because only the writer’s mother and closest friends would enjoy such detail, at Beaumont Hardy I step in to cut away extraneous material to reveal only the most salient parts of a life.

Another dilemma of autobiography-writing is knowing how to present the information. Depending on the purpose of the autobiography, a writer might want to highlight some details that would be irrelevant in another autobiographical context. For instance, the focus of a short autobiography for a dissertation might be very different from that of an autobiographical job application essay. At Beaumont Hardy, I have helped many authors tailor their autobiographical statements to suit their particular purposes and audiences.

Writing a book-length autobiography is the most complex autobiographical dilemma, as the issues of scope and presentation become particularly important. Paring down a life to one paragraph or one essay is difficult, but shaping that life into an interesting book can be most difficult of all. I have guided many authors in refining the pacing and focus of their long autobiographies.

Feel free to e-mail me about your particular autobiography-editing needs. I can help you with content, editing and focus.