Monday, September 20, 2010

Do It Right the First Time?

Sorry I haven’t blogged much over the past little bit, but I’ve been consumed by an extensive home improvement project. More accurately, I should refer to it as a home revision project, fixing a problem in our home’s roof that wouldn’t be a problem if the original builders had simply done things right the first time. What ultimately cost me more than a week’s worth of back-breaking, long days of hard work under a scorching sun, could have been eliminated if our home builders had not sacrificed quality to save them time and effort up front.

This experience has made me draw some parallels to how different writers write. In doing this, I’m not suggesting that others’ writing styles are bad or wrong, but it sheds some light on why I write the way I do. In my associations with other authors and while attending numerous writing conferences, I’ve heard many writers express that when they write they treat their first drafts as, well, as first drafts. They’re more concerned about getting they’re story down on paper, then worrying in the first draft about some of the different nuances that makes a story great. For example, they might wait until subsequent drafts to smooth out the dialogue, make the setting more captivating, fix plot inconsistencies, clean up grammar and punctuation, and other such details. There are a lot of good reasons for writing this way. One, it allows you to take advantage of streams of inspiration as they come. It can keep your internal editor at bay so you don’t let your own self-criticism hold you back. For some people this is simply a more productive way of writing for them. And for others the process of going through several later wholesale drafts and rewrites simply works best for them. But not for me.

For me, I prefer to get my first draft as close to final as possible. This doesn’t mean I don’t do revisions. In fact, I do a lot of revisions, perhaps more revisions than those who go through several drafts. Whenever I sit down to write, before I write anything new, I go back over the last few pages and chapters tightening them, revising them, and making them as perfect as I can get them at that point. One of the reasons I do this is that when you do a full-manuscript edit and revision, a lot of problems (big and small) can easily go unnoticed just due to the sheer magnitude of the effort required. But by breaking down the edit and revision process into smaller segments that can be repeated several times, I’m more likely to catch my mistakes and see potential problems that are easier to fix now than they would be if waited until later.

Also, I'd much rather discover a plot problem in chapter 5 of the first draft while I’m still working on chapter 5, then to discover it after I’ve written 30 more chapters that are based on that flawed plot premise. For me, I’d rather do it right the first time.

Don’t get me wrong, I still do several full-manuscript revisions and edits, but when I do I’m able to focus more on improving and enhancing elements of the overall story rather than a fixing a multitude of minor mistakes that I easily could have fixed early on, as well as significant problems that require a major story overhaul.

The other thing that this method of writing allows me to do, is that by constantly going back to my most recently written pages and chapters, I’m ensuring that the voice and tone of the story remains consistent throughout the story. It keeps in my mind on little character or plot nuances that can sometimes be forgotten when you rush through a manuscript.

Even though this works best for me, it might not work well for other writers. In fact, I’m the only writer I know that works this way. But the key to all of this is that while you’ll receive all sorts of different advice from different authors, not all advice is created equal. When an author tells you that his or her way of doing things is the best or only way of doing things right, it’s good to listen and try to understand why they feel that way, but ultimately you have to decide what works for you.

What works best for you? What's your writing process in terms of edits and revisions? Why?


  1. Interesting post, Ken.

    I have tried my hand at some writing over the last year or so and I would say I use both methods depending on my start point.

    If I know what I want to write, I try to get it as close as possible on the first try. If I have thought about the subject quite a bit and it's not too long, I'll basically have it memorized.

    But if I only know the topic and a general direction I want to go in, I'll sometimes just start writing and sort it out later.

    Here's a link to my blog, I would be grateful if you read a bit of it.


  2. Um, Dad, pretty sure that's how I write and you always tell me not know, when I'm sitting in front of the computer screen trying to get my opening sentence perfect and you're all, "Just write SOMETHING! You can fix it later!"

    Oh also...HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

  3. Riss,

    That's what I'd tell you as your dad so you'd get your homework done. But as an author, I'd tell you to do what works best for you. But it's also true, like I said early in my post, that sometimes you have to treat your writing like a first draft and just write, otherwise your internal critic will keep you from writing anything. Also, I didn't mean to imply that the first thing you write down has to be perfect. I meant, that I constantly go back and tweak and re-tweak everything in my first draft.

  4. Dave,

    Thanks for commenting. I read your blog and enjoyed it. I especially liked the description of your Yosemite trip ( It reminded me of one I went on as a teen that I think you went on too. Keep up the writing.