No Peaking: Writerly Advice

I just wrote 365 words that I want very much to show you. They are the first 365 words of the second draft of a short piece I finished a few weeks ago. I’m not going to post them.

I finished that first piece, set it aside for a week and then returned to it, eager to mark and strike, chop and blend. I had planned to highlight all the good bits green, all the broken bits red and all the stuff that felt out of place or did not grab my throat yellow. I did this and expected then to simply replace the red bits with better words, move the yellow parts where they belonged and keep the green bits in place as buttress for the entire thing. That’s called editing.

I struggled. There were plenty of green bits and a great deal of yellow. Not as much red in the thing as I had feared. Try as I might, I could not wrestle those words into a coherent draft. There was the dim shape of story in it but the shape was broken by gulfs of narrative silence I had not at first seen.

When I was writing that first draft, the story felt like a line pulling me through. Sometimes the line hitched. Sometimes it dragged. But the writing felt like a line.

When I read that first draft, I noticed only the disunity. Why did he do that? Where did those people in the other paragraph come from? Is this guy wearing any clothes? The questions were maddening, and I had no answers.

I stopped. I let it sit another week.

And now, I am drawn back to that story. This time I am writing again from scratch without rereading the previous draft. I am working from my memory of what happens and building the situation with brand new words.

The second draft is starting over with a bigger germ. The idea is there but is unhindered by the scaffolding I built around the first draft.

All of this is to say, that writing is iterative. I forget this sometimes.When we read published works, we see ideas beautifully laced with all seams closed tight. We relish the exuberance of polished phrase and well-made paragraphs stacked neatly, methodically with a mason’s grace.

When we write, it is very different. It is messy. It is fractured. It is incomplete. We write anyway. We turn again to the germ of our original thought and find that it has grown better and stronger from the accretion of all those earlier words. We sweep all of those earlier words away and start again with a better sense of the line that drew us through the first time.

Writing, like painting, is iterative. You lay down an idea. You layer an idea over that. You layer another idea over that and another and another and another.

No one will ever see the brilliant words that went before these. They will disappear into the sediment of thought. But the loam of each layer gets richer.

Only after I have done this several times will I dare to make comparison. Only then will I dissect, marking the green, red and yellow bits. And then, I will write one more draft, pulling together the best pieces of each in the best possible order.

I want to show you these new 365 words, but I’m not going to show them now. You can’t fall in love too quickly. You never know which of your precious darlings you are going to need to kill and bury in the loam. Keep those words to yourself until they are ready.

Don’t share your early drafts until you fully own them. No peaking.



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