Tuesday 30 October 2018

The Dirty Draft - by Sophia Bennett

What is the difference between someone who really wants to write - and a writer?

Is it an innate feeling for poetry, a talent for esoteric vocabulary, a combination of inspiration and perfectionism ...?

I used to think so, but over the years I've discovered that it is none of these things. In fact, it's practically the opposite.

I work with a lot of aspiring writers - just like the aspiring writer I was for so many years myself, and who's still in there somewhere - and I sometimes feel them looking at me, like climbers roped to a guide on Everest, hoping for the magic word that will get them to the impossible summit. If I was a guide on a mountain I would tell them that what you have to do is just put one foot in front of the other, and not look down. Writing is like climbing. One step at a time.

A writer is someone who writes things. Gets them down. Gets them done. Knows when enough is enough. And occasionally ... very occasionally ... is lucky enough to be inspired.

I call this attitude to writing the 'Dirty Draft. It's the thing I impress on all my students, and try to follow myself, though sometimes it's hard. It's all about writing from beginning to end, without constantly stopping to second-guess yourself or do any but the most cursory editing, until the first draft is done. You don't know what you've got until that's finished. And it won't be finished if you keep finding excuses to stop. The best of those excuses is 'it's not good enough'. True. But it's still an excuse.

A professional writer - at least, all the writers I know - writes something bad every single day. Words that are wrong. Words that will be deleted. Words that sometimes take them away from what they wanted to say, not closer to it. Unworthy words.

And, do you know what? These unworthy words mount up into a whole unworthy manuscript. If you do it every single day, they mount up quite quickly. Somewhere, buried in that manuscript, are some brilliant gems of character and plot. Once you reach the end - the summit of that climb - you go back and do it again, but this time it's easier. This time you know where you're heading. Now you're rewriting, which is when most writers do their real work.

The Dirty Draft is a way to navigate through writer's block and any general lack of confidence. Just get it down. Then you can make it better. John Green says on his website, 'I give myself permission to suck'. That's what the Dirty Draft is all about. It sucks, but you did it, and now you can make it the way you want it. Go you.

With Nanowrimo about to start in a couple of days, his thoughts on how to write a lot of words, quickly - and why it's a good idea - are very appropriate.

He uses another metaphor - the opposite of mine, but it still works: it's 'digging clay out of the ground and ... using the clay to make something you like. Check him out here, in what feels like the Dirty Draft of the video he really wanted to make on the subject!

As you write, your ideas will clarify themselves. Make notes of what you might want to change, but don't change it yet.

Neil Gaiman is another of my go-to authors for writing tips. He always tells aspiring writers to 'finish things', and go back to them later. Simple, obvious, difficult and true.

A bad, complete first draft is worth a million almost-perfect, half-finished ones. It's how I wrote this blog post - one Dirty Draft step at a time. It's how I wrote Love Song, stumbling on through every not-quite-working chapter, until eventually, after many rewrites, it became my most prize-winning book.

And now ... back to the book I'm writing. An ever-growing mountain of unworthy words. Just trying not to look down.



Susan Price said...

Totally agree with this. I am building some raised beds in my yard at the moment. Never done any woodwork before but picked up tips on the fly and had a go. If something went wrong, I took it apart and started again. The raised beds are getting into their final draft.
Writing needs exactly the same approach: a willingness to have a go and then an acceptance that you will have to scrap some things and start again.

Lynne Benton said...

Hear hear! Great post, Sophia - thank you for the reminder!

Sophia Bennett said...

Thank you both. :)

Luisa Plaja said...

Brilliant post! Perfectly timed, too! Thank you.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Love the phrase Dirty Draft - sums it up exactly - so I'm off to get down and dirty!