The Umpteenth Draft

If you’ve ever written anything, including term papers for school, you know what a first draft is: a complete but unedited work. So what comes next? Well, you say, obviously editing. And you’re right. But what kind of editing?

Broadly speaking, the adventure starts with overall structure and gradually works its way down to typos. Although not always that neat, once a first draft is done it’s time to step back, draw a deep breath, and look at the big picture.

Ray Bradbury, in his mystery Death is a Lonely Business, summed up the process rather graphically. His lead character, a writer, develops a friendship with a local police chief. The police chief, it turns out, harbors literary ambitions, so the writer helps him get started. His key advice: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”

That’s worth remembering, if only to remind you how good your first draft likely is.

These days, few of us use typewriters. Via computer, it’s easy to edit as you go, and I regularly do that. Most days before writing anything new, I get a running start by rereading what I wrote the prior day and cleaning it up. By the time my so-called first draft is done, it’s already been edited substantially. Even so, it won’t be free of structural problems, substandard writing, or scads of typos. It remains a first draft in spirit, if not precisely in number.

Usually I crawl through a story at least three times before I’m happy with it, after which my wife tears it apart and makes me fix it up again, often contributing new material along the way.

These rewrites are not merely finding better words or fixing spelling errors. I rearrange material, throw out entire scenes and start them over, and add new scenes. I fix glaring continuity errors, plug up holes, and expand upon ideas.

To take one small example, in Ice on the Bay (my current work in progress) , I introduced a stack of boxes at the back of a room in which a murder had occurred. At the time, I didn’t have any plans for them. I didn’t even know what they contained. Nearing the end of the first draft, I realized that Eric Dumas, the principal investigator of the murder, never bothered to ask what was in them, much less look for himself. He should have. And once he did, it turned out to be important.

Completing the first draft may seem like a lot of work, but once it’s done, the real work begins. And until it’s done, one doesn’t have a story worth reading.