Archive for January, 2009

Writing a Rough Draft: In Praise of Absence

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

One of the first problems with trying to write is learning how to stay out of your own way. As a writer, of course, you must come up with ideas, formulate them into sentences and paragraphs, and commit them to some kind of written form. For these parts of the process, the creative and imaginative part of your writerly self must be entirely present. However, other parts of your writing self—the inner critic and the inner literary historian—should absent themselves during the early stages of writing a rough draft.

The editor in you constantly works to censor, perfect, and refine, often before any of these activities is even possible—before you have written a single word. Thus, you might find yourself rejecting certain topics or story ideas before you have even formulated a sentence. You might tell yourself that “nobody will want to read about antelopes” or “ a story about lemonade would be really boring.” Or you might have written a couple of sentences but be unable to write any more because of a driving need to perfect those two sentences. You shift words around, consult a thesaurus to replace one word with another and ultimately decide that the whole endeavor is useless. Your inner editor is working very effectively, but that editor should not even be a part of the process yet.

You might also feel the oppressive weight of literary history before you even begin to write. “Shakespeare has said it all far better than I could,” you might think. Or “I’ll never write another Gatsby.” Or “I’m sure Virginia Woolf never came up with an idea this dumb.” While all of those thoughts might ultimately be true, now is not the time to be having them. You can talk yourself out of any rough draft by dwelling too much upon literary giants and their masterful works. Although good writers should always be good readers and should know what others before them have written, once you begin your rough draft, you should try to forget what you once knew of literature. Ignore the gilt-edged tomes sitting smugly in your bookcase, and turn away from the leering busts and portraits of great past authors. Only in this way can your own work thrive. The disheartening comparisons can come at the revision stage, not now.

There are several practical ways to banish your inner editor and literary historian while you hammer out a workable rough draft.

One is to set aside a certain number of pages—either in hard copy or on a computer—that you must fill within a certain amount of time. For example, you might tell yourself to write four pages in half an hour and force yourself to do exactly that, without stopping to see if you like what you have written, if you ought to change a word, or if Hemingway would approve. This kind of single-minded page-filling is the idea behind NaNoWriMo, a writing project that encourages writers to dash out a 50,000-word novel in one month.

Another way to sidestep your inner critic is to write without ever allowing yourself to reread what you have written until you have finished your rough draft. As you forge relentlessly ahead in your draft, you forget what you’ve written and are unable to draw any conclusions about its merit or relevance to the literary canon. Even if you take a break, refrain from looking back when you next take up your writing. You may soon feel as though you’re writing in a vacuum, where the words come and go too quickly for you to have to evaluate them. There is a kind of freedom in this kind of writing, because you never feel the weight of the words you just wrote.

A third way to evade a less-than-helpful inner editing voice is to write while you’re otherwise engaged in another activity. Jerry Cleaver of The Writers’ Loft, a wildly popular Chicago writer’s workshop, suggests this very idea to his students. He recommends writing while watching television or listening to the radio. Part of your mind is on your writing, but the other part is on the television program or radio broadcast. Your inner critic is stymied by the distraction, and you can do a surprising amount of writing without self-analysis.

All of these methods can help you write a preliminary rough draft, which is an incredible first step in the writing process. Once you have a piece of text in front of you on paper or on the screen, you can begin to think about editing or revising. You might not like all of what you have written, but when you write without the burden of criticism, some part of your writing will usually feel worthwhile enough to pursue. Your main goal in producing a possible rough draft is to distance yourself as much as possible from the censorious parts of your writing self and to allow your creative self complete freedom.