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On Writing in Drafts: Rough Drafts and Good Foundations

Yesterday I talked a little bit about my biggest work-in-progress (me), and the story I told by way of illustration is one I could bend to a dozen different applications. I told you yesterday that I’d chosen to make it a discussion of writing in drafts, but what I’m really talking about is writing as a process.

It’s simple to think of writing as a thing you just do, at any given moment, but good writing has a lot of moving parts. It’s not a one-time event, even for very small documents, but a gradual development. It’s not a single ability, but a worldview and a set of habits and a series of expectations and a certain type of understanding.

Narrative Therapy

It’s so distinct a method of understanding reality that there’s a branch of psychology dedicated to understanding life in the terms of storytelling, so you can take control. The essential principle (and the one I’ve put into practice) is that you are responsible for writing the story of your life, starting with today as page one.

Every story starts with baggage. Every novel opens with a first sentence already sagging under the weight of hundreds of pages worth of backstory, even if you can’t see any of it. The story isn’t really the setting or the history or the cultural context, though. The story is what the protagonists do, starting on page one.

And narrative therapists will tell you that’s your job when you wake up every day. No matter where you are, or what you’ve got to deal with (good or bad), your job is to take your story where you want it from here.

That fascinates me — the way an appreciation for storytelling has shaped psychology — and I’m sure I’ll talk about it in more detail another time. But today I want to talk about your writing process, about accomplishing your writing goals, and so we’re going to bring the parallel full circle (shattering all of trigonometry with a single casual metaphor).


Of course, therapy exists to fix problems. If your writing already works, you don’t need an adjustment. That applies whether we’re talking about your general writing process on a grand scale, or just individual projects.

We’ve got a system that’s supposed to produce healthy, well-adjusted rough drafts. Maybe they’re not perfect, but they’re able to function according to a reasonable standard, and a little bit of focused improvement is all you’d need to really make them shine.

That system is called prewriting. It’s your opportunity to make sure your story has the best possible chances at turning out okay. The better you know your story — and I don’t just mean your story idea, but your character profiles, your deep setting, your themes, your conflict resolution cycle, your narrative voice, your overall story structure, all of it — but the better you know your story, the less work you’ll have to do during the writing and the rewriting stages to get it finished.

And there are some writing coaches who swear by detailed prewriting. It’s the main schtick there at StoryFix, which is a site rich with solid info. Larry would tell you that writing a story before it’s rigorously structured is the same thing as writing notes about your story. You won’t get started writing the actual story until you’ve got everything nailed down.

Working with What You’ve Got

That’s a lot of work, though, and frankly, it’s a luxury. Stories don’t have to come from that solid of a foundation to be viable. Good stories can start in a lot of different ways, with different writers, and each one can develop in its own path. That’s okay.

I understand a lot of writers want to be able to scribble down a perfect first draft and be done with it. It would be lovely. And, in the same way, as a parent I want to raise children who are perfectly healthy — physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

We’re all better off, though, if we accept the reality that life usually doesn’t turn out that way, and start learning how to deal with real life — baggage and all. Sometimes that means adopting an exercise regimen so you can handle the terrifying prospect of a dinner party, and sometimes it means learning to see the potential in an ugly rough draft, and picking up the habits needed to make it better.

That last is what we’ll talk about tomorrow. Come back, and I’ll tell you how to fix a broken draft, and finish writing a novel.

3 Responses to “On Writing in Drafts: Rough Drafts and Good Foundations”

  1. Courtney Cantrell says:

    I love shattering trigonometry. I would’ve done so in high school, but I wouldn’t have received my passing grade.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Funny how happy some of us academic overachievers can be with a “passing grade” when the subject in question is advanced math….

      • Courtney Cantrell says:

        Ha! I was happy with a passing grade because that was all I could manage! 😉 Math and I did not become civil acquaintances until I had to take college algebra at OC…and even then, it was a grudging relationship. Yes, I was an academic overachiever…but when it came to math, my achievement was getting through each class period without having a nervous breakdown.