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Approaching First Drafts

Many writers approach every writing task (particularly a school writing task) as if they were a batter who has to hit a homerun with every swing of the bat. They think first drafts should be perfect (often because first drafts are all they have written before). Or writers may see writing as just a matter of "getting it out" or "getting it on paper," implying that writing is like sending a fax--the thoughts take perfect shape in our head and then are "copied" onto the page. But who writes perfect first drafts?--no one! And whose thinking doesn't grow the more they think about, consider, and learn about a subject--let's hope no one.

To say that writing is a process is the same thing as saying thinking is a process. To experience writing as a process, we recognize that our first drafts are always rough, just like our original thinking on a subject is preliminary. Even if we have a good sense of what to say, we don't immediately find the best approach for how to say it.

Below are some tips for approaching your first draft:

Orient Yourself:
Analyze your writing situation. What your message? Who are you writing to? Why are you writing to this audience?--what's your purpose? What is the larger context or event surrounding the communication? For school assignments, read the topic sheet carefully and get a good grasp of the writing task and the particulars it is asking you to do. Examining the task once again before you write your draft is important because between the time you first got the topic and when you sit down to write your first draft, you might have experienced some drift in your understanding or perhaps this reexamination of the topic will clarify some part of the task you had not recognized before

Donald Murray says every writer writes from a storehouse of information. A fun analogy I have for this storehouse is a box of leggos. If writing is like putting together a leggo creation, it matters what sorts of pieces you have in your box. Just as you figure it out as you pick pieces to build your leggo creation, so too you construct your essay out of the information, quotes, and other ideas that you gather together related to your topic. As Murray says,

Effective writing is produced from an abundance of specific information. The writer needs an inventory of facts, observations, details, images, quotations, statistics—all sorts of forms of information—from which to choose when building an effective piece of writing. (10)

So collect, collect! When you put ideas and information together, you can see a bigger picture, connections, patterns, and new insights. For Murray, "two and two in writing add up to seven" (11). The first priority as you work on your paper is to build this storehouse of information from which to write through various brainstorming strategies like listing, freewriting, clustering or simply notetaking.

At a certain point, you'll know when you have enough information to begin building a draft. Realize, however, that this collecting for your storehouse continues throughout the writing process. Beware waiting too late to dive into your first draft because it is through your writing that you will clarify your thinking on the subject. Sometimes "just writing" is the best way to explore your thinking on a topic.

Letting it Be Rough
When you sit down to write your first draft, let it be messy, disorganized, incomplete, and full of grammatical errors. Let it be rough--it's ok! Anne Lamont in her book Bird by Bird calls the first draft the "child's draft": "where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later."

As a writer, you have to operate with a level of faith and courage to let your draft come out in this way. First, you need faith that this rough sketching will help lead you to a better end product. Second, you need courage because this draft will inevitably be flawed and you will have to withstand potential criticism about its flaws. Your shield against this criticism is the fact that this draft is an early draft and should not be judged upon the same standards as a finished piece of work. It’s rough. So what? Of course it is—it’s a rough draft! Order comes out of chaos, right? So let your early drafting on a paper be chaotic.

Try a Zero Draft
A good strategy for writing a first draft is to write a zero draft (or sometimes called a freewriting draft). The basic strategy of a zero draft is to "just write" for a substantial period of time on your topic--say, 20-40 minutes. It is called a zero draft because it is meant to be a throw away draft rather than an organized dress rehearsal of the paper.

Before starting to write, review your essay topic and your collected information on the topic.Then put them both away. After you have primed yourself, then begin freewriting your draft--writing continuously without stopping (or with only the slightest pauses) for the alloted time for your draft. Cross nothing out. Correct no typos. Don't worry about organization or grammar or including exact quotes--just write. Most importantly, try to write all the way through to the end. You may find that you hit spots where you can’t develop something or there are details that you can’t remember. DON’T STOP TO LOOK THEM UP. Keep writing! Just make a note to yourself at that spot in the draft. Then keep writing.

After your complete the zero draft, review it carefully for new insights and approaches to your essay. Look for material that you could use in your next more formal and developed draft. It may be that you want to try another zero draft if it is productive for you.

Try Looping
Peter Elbow in his book Writing With Power has many interesting strategies of directed freewriting he calls "Loop Writing" (and perhaps one of those strategies might help you), but I'm going to present a variation here that I call "looping." One trick to push your thinking is to pick out one sentence from your freewriting first draft that stood out to your for some reason as significant. Grab a fresh document, write this sentence at the top, and begin freewriting again to see where it takes you. You can loop many times and push deeper and deeper into what you mean to say on the topic.

Start Early
Most of all, take the pressure off of first drafts by starting early. If the final draft of the paper is due tomorrow, and you start on it at 10 PM the night before, inevitably your first draft will be your only draft--and we know how first drafts turn out, right?


Works Cited
Elbow, Peter. Writing With Power. Oxford UP, 1981.
Lamont, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor, 1994.
Murray, Donald. A Writer Teaches Writing. 2nd ed., Heinle, 2004.


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