Writing can be burdensome, especially when you find yourself halfway through penning a novel with meandering subplots and indistinguishable secondary characters or a piece of non-fiction that has lost all direction. The text seems to have gotten away from you, and you suspect that your work might be deeply and irremediably flawed. Working day after day on a writing project whose very essence feels unstable can be both unproductive and disheartening.
Writers whose work has become oppressive and unmanageable have two options. As I discussed in an earlier post, the first option is to plow ahead valiantly, writing what I call the “terrible rough draft–a manuscript notable mostly for its completeness but, perhaps, harboring several kernels of pure genius. The second option is almost exactly the opposite–to set the partial first draft aside and to start over. The second option, drastic though it may seem, can be remarkably liberating an can often prompt a burst of productivity.
Starting over doesn’t necessarily mean taking a match to an unwieldy first draft. Instead, it means slowly following the trajectory of that partial draft to find the moments when it goes astray–and the moments that actually work. The beauty of this starting-over process is that it allows you to begin with a somewhat clean slate but gives you the reassurance of a “safety net”–your partial first draft.
Most people now write their novels on computers, but a hard copy of your imperfect first draft is very useful in the starting-over process. Not only does a hard copy allow for efficient side-by-side comparisons of your first and subsequent drafts, but it can also give you great psychological comfort. Thumbing through the pages of an imperfect first draft and crossing out mediocre passages can feel very productive and satisfying. Working from a hard copy also reminds you that your original first draft still exists. Knowing that you could always return to the original draft might make you feel more uninhibited about making drastic changes to it. (Of course, you can always refer to the electronic version of your first draft when starting over on it. Flipping back and forth between electronic versions of a manuscript can have its own emotional rewards.)
The starting-over process is straightforward. The opening of the manuscript is often fairly adequate and can usually remain unchanged. (The perceived problems usually start later in the piece.) You can feel fairly confident of the first sentence. Leave it in place, and continue through the opening paragraphs. Because you have written part of the manuscript already, you will have a good idea of the overall trajectory. In the starting-over phase, you can make sure that the opening paragraph truly moves the piece in the direction you want it to go. You can often head off many of the problems that manifest themselves in the first draft by reconsidering the opening of the piece.
As you proceed through the early parts of the manuscript, take none of your writing for granted. Just because a character or subplot exists in the first draft, it need not remain in any subsequent versions. Similarly, internal divisions and sub-arguments in a non-fiction piece need not remain in a new draft. Consider all aspects of your manuscript expendable, and honestly determine whether they contribute to the overall effect you hope to achieve.
You will often find a clear moment when your piece diverges from the ideal and begins to lose momentum or direction. At that point, you might very clearly see the “fork in the road” that pulls your work away from its true trajectory. Feel free to excise those directional missteps.
You will sometimes encounter first-draft passages that you like but that you suspect might create problems later in the manuscript. Bracket those portions of the manuscript (either electronically or in hard copy), and leave them out of your starting-over draft. You might later find that they fit perfectly into another part of the piece or that they lead in a profitable new direction that the original first draft might not have elucidated. The starting-over process provides your first draft with the “breathing room” that allows for these kinds of textual reconfigurations.
Starting over on a manuscript will often give you the satisfying feeling of cobbling together only the best parts of your first draft while simultaneously allowing you to clarify and rethink your original ideas. The process is the complete opposite of forging ahead until you write a terrible first draft, but it’s a refreshing option if you feel that your writing has begun to stagnate. Starting over can reinvigorate your writing and help you rediscover your authorly purpose.
At Beaumont Hardy, I’m happy to help any author with a terrible rough draft, a starting-over draft or any other piece of writing.