The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

A Minority View: I don’t believe in first drafts

Here’s the prevailing wisdom dispensed by almost every writing instructor, coach, guru and bestselling author in the country: Finish the first draft first. Don’t stop to edit anything. Rush ahead at flank speed to get the story down on paper. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 and do not ever stop what you’re doing in chapter fifteen to go back and tinker with something you wrote in chapter two.

If you’re a writer and if the prevailing wisdom works for you, keep doing what you’re doing.

I prefer to edit, tinker and rewrite as I go so that by the time I reach the end of the story in my DOC file, what I have is not a first draft but a very close version of the final story. I do not see stories as linear even when they are told in the standard, beginning/middle/end format. Everything everywhere in the work influences everything else in the work. I miss these influences any time I try to write an entire first draft before going back to change earlier chapters.

Haiku Example

Consider this English translation (without any concerns about syllable counts) of a famous haiku by the master Matsuo Bashō:

old pond
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

I've put this in an Old English font because I think it's as out of date as the font. Click on the graphic to see where it came from and the tips being offered (which I also think are all wrong).

I’ve put this in an Old English font because I think it’s as out of date as the font. Click on the graphic to see where it came from and the tips being offered (which I also think are all wrong). I left the green line beneath “The Good News?” because I don’t think it’s good news.

Whether or not one is using the English approach to the haiku by writing three lines of five, seven and five syllables, the intent of the poem is the juxtaposition of images/thoughts/moments that typically show two versions of the same thing even though they might initially appear divergent.

I seldom write poetry, but as I look at this, it’s impossible for me to contemplate writing a haiku or even a quatrain without being able to see the entire poem on my screen at once and to “be allowed” to tinker with the lines in any order I want to tinker with them. However, if one were writing this haiku the way people are told to write novels, they would supposedly write one line per page during the “rough draft stage” so that they couldn’t see the beginning while they were working on the middle and the end.

The story’s words are as interdependent as the haiku’s words

When I’m working on a novel, I see the entire story at once even though the words fill many pages.  When I first think of a story idea, it has no more clarity than an out-of-focus memory of an event that happened many years ago. As I work on the story, things come into focus in all parts of the story, not just in the last lines I typed on a page well into the novel.

Rushing ahead with what I have so far when I sense earlier sections that need tweaking seems as nonsensical as travelling from, say, Chicago to San Francisco and realizing some six hours into the trip that you made a wrong turn in Iowa and are rapidly approaching St. Louis, many miles off course. What would you do? Depending on maps or GPS (which you should have turned on before now), you would have the option of backtracking and getting back on the route you intended to take or finding a way to head west on other roads. The third option would be to forget San Francisco and continue driving south until you reached the Gulf of Mexico.

But what if this is a novel? There are a variety of options: Write about a fictional trip to New Orleans,  show the protagonist badly off course en route to his/her goals and figure out how to get him/her from St. Louis on out to San Francisco, or go back to the chapter where the wrong turn was made and erase everything after that.

It’s hard to say what makes a better story. Assuming the original story idea is still sound, it seems pointless to me to continue writing the first draft once I see I’m in the wrong place. Or, if I rush ahead with the draft, perhaps I don’t know I’m in the wrong place and keep on writing more chapters that will have to be thrown out later. So, in seeing the novel all at once as more and more of the parts from beginning to end come into focus, I bounce all over the manuscript long before I reach the end of it, changing this and changing that rather than continuing to forge ahead even though what I should have said earlier has a profound effect on what I’m writing as I near the ending.

I seldom find anything as extreme as my Chicago to San Francisco example. Usually, it’s smaller details. For example, I need for something to happen in Des Moines that will foreshadow something that will happen in Cheyenne. However, when I was in Des Moines, I didn’t “see” that and now that I’m in Cheyenne, I really need to go back and change the Des Moines scenes before I can refer back to them in this latter stage of the book. It’s easy to see this in a haiku because you can physically see the entire poem at once. It’s harder to see when writing a novel if all you’re thinking about is the chapter you’re writing now rather than considering the impact on the current scenes from all the scenes earlier in the manuscript.

Since I do not plot or outline novels, I never know where they’re going (more or less). As  where they’re going starts coming into clearer focus, so does where they’ve been. So, I’m always polishing where they’ve been so that like the haiku, the book ends of all of a piece. I can’t do this with the “write the first draft first” approach because with ideas flying around inside my head, I won’t remember a lot of them unless I type them into the manuscript right now.

I love the chaos of this. In fact, I depend on it.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and the heroine’s journey fantasy “Sarabande.” Click on “Malcolm” to visit Campbell’s website.


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