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The Writing Process: The First Draft

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Dave Hood

Writing is a process, and yet many beginning writers ignore the process of writing, preferring to dive into the art and craft of writing without much preparation. And when they finish their first draft, they believe that it is the final version. I have done this–and it is a waste of time and results in chaos.

The best way to write is to follow the process of writing. Whether you write poetry, short stories, personal essays, articles, you first begin with an idea. Next, complete your research by gathering relevant material, information that allows you to understand your idea. (Different forms of writing require different types of research.)This might involve an interview, taking a trip to the library,  doing research on the Internet, checking your writing journal, and so forth.

Next, organize your material and read through it. Your purpose is to understand the research you ‘ve collected. You’ll also answer two questions: 1) What are you going to write about? In other words, what is your topic.  2) What points do you want to make about your topic? You can use this approach to write a poem, short story, personal essay, article, and more.  You can list them or create an outline or make a mental note.

After organizing your work, begin writing the first draft. The first draft is just a blue print, the scaffolding, the foundation for the finished piece of writing.  The first draft is never your best work. It is an initial attempt.

Once you write the draft, set it aside for a day or more, then take a break from the work of writing. When you return, begin to revise your draft. You are revising to improve on your first attempt at writing something memorable and superb. All great writers write and revise their work many times—to make it the best they can.

In this article, I discuss how to write a first draft. The final decision on how to write a draft is yours. Some writers follow the process; other writers just begin–without much planning or organization or research.

Organizing Your Material

Let’s assume you have selected your idea to write about and completed your research. What’s next? Many writers start writing. But this results in unfocused writing, and so you’re wasting time. Unfocused writing at the draft stage can lead to mental confusion, which can stress you out.

A better way to write a first draft is to organize your material, determine what you want to say, and then write the draft. Organizing your material enables you to create a structure. How do you do this?

At the organization stage, do the following:

  • Learn your research material by reviewing your notes
  • Decide what you want to write about
  • Decide what points you want to make
  • Decide on a possible beginning and ending

The best way to organize your work is to have a map of how to proceed or to begin the journey of writing the draft. Essential your map is a plan for writing the draft.

Types of Writing Plans

I have learned that there are four types of plans to write the draft. In school, you are were taught to write a formal outline. It included various sections and points to make. Each section was identified with a roman numeral or number. Each roman numeral identified a first paragraph or section.  Under each section heading, you identified the important points. I don’t know anyone who uses this formal outline. I never did. It is like wearing a straight jacket and trying to write. It stifles creativity and the discovery through writing.

Some writers begin with a list of important points to make, and then start writing. I’d call this a impromptu or scratch outline. It is informal. You can use this approach to compose a poem, short story, personal essay.  I have used this approach many times. (It also works for writing letters, emails, poetry, personal essays.) The scratch outline allows you to put your thoughts on paper and allow you to remember important points to make.

Some writers use an organic approach to organizing  material. The structure is unknown. It will be discovered by writing. You can use this method of organizing for writing a poem, short story, essay, novel.  Essential, writers who use this approach rely on trial and error, because they don’t know how the story, the poem, the essay begins, develops, and ends until they start to write. Writing is an act of discovery. The details are revealed to the writer by writing.

Many writers, especially those who write poetry and fiction begin a story without  knowing how it will begin or end. They write a section, and then another, and another. They might begin in the middle, with a character, conflict, setting, and so forth.  Or, they freewrite or write to discover. Afterwards they cut and paste the various sections or parts together. Many writers use this organic approach. It is essentially writing to discover. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with this approach. However, it is time consuming.

Many writers prefer to create an informal plan. It provides a structure.  It includes the following:

  • Beginning-Introduces what you are writing about and why it is important
  • Section–related points
  • Section–related points
  • Section-related points
  • Ending-Give the reader a sense of closure.

If you are going to write an article, opinion essay, segmented essay, lyrical essay, I should consider using this approach.

Another approach is to create a narrative arc. If you are writing a personal-narrative essay or short story, you’d use the narrative arc as your plan. It includes:

  • Inciting incident
  • Rising action-Setbacks and obstacles
  • Crisis–conflict intensifies
  • Climax
  • Resolution

A simpler way is to identify the conflict, climax, and resolution.

If you are writing a personal essay or short story, I find that an informal plan or outline is a good way to create structure for your writing. It  provides a map on how to begin the journey of writing the first draft. It is a way to evoke the creative muse–and find other material in your mind to write about. You won’t become lost or forget to write about an important point.

Required Tools for Writing the Draft

What do you require to write a draft? Ideally, you need a computer to type the draft. It should include word-processing software, such as MS Word. You’ll be able to add, delete, copy, cut and paste, do spell-check, and so forth. Having access to a computer also enables you to link to the Internet, where you can conduct research, send e-mail, post to a blog or online website.

You’ll also require a notebook and one or more pens. Use the notebook to  make notes on your draft. Perhaps an idea pops into your head as you write the draft. Perhaps, while writing the draft you discover that you’ll need to do more research, and make note of it in your notebook.

You should also own a dictionary and thesaurus. Refer to your dictionary to check the spelling of words and look up their meaning. Use a thesaurus to find a word with the right shade of meaning. I suggest you also have a book of quotations. A quote can add depth and a new perspective to a piece of writing, especially when it is a quote from a sage, philosopher, great writer.

Once you have a notebook, pen, dictionary, thesaurus, and computer, you are ready to write the draft.

Writing the Draft

For years, I’d write a first draft by writing and revising as I wrote. I’d write a sentence, or a paragraph or a section, then reread what I wrote. Then I’d edit and revise before moving on. But I have learned that this approach slows down the writing process and blocks creative thinking.

A better approach is to write the entire draft without editing or revising. For instance, write the complete poem, short story, essay–without revising.  Why? You are creating flow and tapping into your memories and inventing by using your imagination–writing what you hear in your head. As you write, refer to your plan. This plan guides your writing process. You might begin in the middle, at the end, or at the start. It doesn’t matter. The important point is to get the draft down on paper.

Here are a few things to consider as you write the draft:

Beginning the Draft. Your beginning should tell the reader what you are writing about and why your piece of writing is important to read. The beginning should also grab the reader’s attention, compelling them to read on. A few ways you can begin: with a quote, with a question, with a fascinating fact, with an anecdote, with a list,  in the middle of the action.

Writing the content. Your content will depend on the form and genre you are writing.  For instance, if you are writing an opinion essay, the middle should identify your argument, share important points. In a more formal literary journalistic essay, the middle might include several sections and points for each section.

If you are writing a collage essay or lyrical essay, you’ll create subsections with asterisks or roman numerals. For each section, you’ll might write a quote, anecdote, description, and so forth.

If you are writing a meditative essay, you’ll write about your main points, those that investigate your question you are pondering.

If you are writing an opinion essay, you’ll share your argument with the reader.

If  you are writing a short story or personal essay, you’d tell the story by using a narrative arc. The middle will include conflict, setbacks and obstacles, climax, and falling action. You might end with an open ending, closed ending, lesson learned, epiphany.

Writing Creatively. When writing the first draft, you want to make an attempt at writing creatively. You’ll make a first attempt at:

  • Showing and telling your reader
  • Writing vivid descriptions
  • Writing significant details or telling details
  • Writing imagery that evoke the senses.
  • Use literary devices of simile and metaphor

As well, write in scenes. You write in scenes when writing a poem, fiction, and creative nonfiction.  A scene includes:

  • Setting details
  • Action. Something happens
  • Dialogue
  • Imagery
  • Vivid Descriptions

Writing the ending. You end by creating a sense of closure. Before ending, you make sure you’ve answered all questions raised in the writing. The best ending is memorable. The writer makes one final point that the reader can take away and ponder. For instance, many writers of creative nonfiction end with a final quote from someone they’ve interviewed.

Revising Your Draft

Once you have written the draft, what happens? You’ll put the piece of writing away for a night, a day, few days, or longer. Essentially, you’re take a break from writing. Taking a break enables you to see your work from a fresh perspective. It is like relaxing after a long day at work. Taking a break will refresh your creative spirit. When you return from your sojourn, you’ll begin revising your draft. The purpose is  to make it better–to transform your draft into a splendid piece of writing.

Revision is about doing a macro-edit and micro-edit. A macro-edit involves revising “the big picture.” You’ll focus on setting, characterization, plot, theme, point of view, and so forth. You might add, delete, change the form and content of your work. If you are writing a personal essay, you might add a scene or details or imagery. If you are writing a short story, a macro-revision involves looking at setting, plot, character, POV, theme, and so forth.

Revision also involves a micro-editing or copyediting. It is a line-to-line edit, and involves checking grammar, spelling, and punctuation, active or passive voice, sentence variety, word choice. To learn more about editing, read “The Artful Edit: On the Practise of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell.

A good writer writes and revises. Read the biography of any great writing, and you’ll discover that they created a memorable poem, short story, personal essay by relying on writing as a process. Writing the first draft is part of the process.  Good writers know that the initial draft is never their best work. It is just a blueprint. Ernest Hemingway revised the ending to “Farewell to Arms” 39 times. You’ll need to revise your work to make it the best you can.  Drafting and revising creates order from chaos. It improves on a first attempt. It polishes your work until it shines.

To learn more about the writing process and drafting, read the following:

  • Writing Your Way: Creating a Writing Process that Works for You by Don Fry
  • Where Do You Get Your Ideas: A Writer’s Guide to Transforming Notions Into Narratives by Fred White
  • The Artful Edit: On the Practise of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell
  • Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose, edited by Constance Hale
  • Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
  • Stein On Writing by Sol Stein
  • The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio
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