Measure Twice, Cut Once

Last summer I focused on writing for the first time in a long time. I finished off a half-dozen or so first drafts of stories. It was exhilarating, but only after I had the realization that—or admitted to myself—that there was no reasonable way to create a finished story on the first draft.

I know, that sounds so obvious when you say it. When you let yourself think it. I don’t think I wanted to admit how much work I was going to have to put into writing. But the moment I gave myself permission to say, “This is a first draft. It’s pretty dreadful. Plan on writing a few more drafts before this thing is ready to share with people.” And it was more than wanting to be able to create first drafts of stories that could be sent out on submission; it was getting the story into the form I wanted to spend time editing and revising.

Despite several decades in publishing I am, for all intents and purposes, a new writer. I had to come to this epiphany at some point, right? I have several first drafts of stories—some of them stories that I’ve been poking at for more than a decade—waiting for a rewrite. In most cases these first drafts are straightforward narratives telling the story in chronological order.

They’re pretty boring.

The first story this happened with I almost trunked before I got to the end. I was so disgusted with what I was putting on the page I just didn’t want to look at it anymore. I didn’t let myself stop. I pushed through to the end. I may have literally said out loud, “Just finish the damn thing and then you never have to think about it again.” Because I knew that if I didn’t finish it it would sit in the back of my mind waiting for me. Once I got the story done I sat and looked at it on my computer and I had a second epiphany.

I know how to edit. And this author won’t fight me on changes. I could already see how to adjust the story to make it the tale I wanted to write instead of the one I had written. I’ve decided that the best thing for the story was to treat the first draft as something that was finished and when it was time to revise the story to begin with a blank document. There was no sense trying to mix and match the bits that were in the story that I wanted with the new content it needed.

Better to start over.

Recently I was reading a post on Rob Hart’s website about creating a bulletproof novel outline and it was essentially the same idea. Rather than trying to patch up an existing outline, re-write it from scratch.

I think that works great for short fiction or for outlines. Neither is so long that you’re looking at throwing out hundreds of thousands of words. And the first draft is great practice for yourself as a writer and for where you want your story to go.

It’s like the old renovation maxim: “Measure twice, cut once.” Create several rough drafts before you get your story in the form you want to edit and revise.