The Writer’s Rough Draft

I’m working on an essay for the back page of a cancer magazine.  This is the third morning I have worked on editing it. The essay actually derives from a posting I made on this blog entitled, “And Then I Made Soup.” It might be interesting to someone who is not a writer to see how much editing goes into my final essays or articles. I didn’t use to edit nearly as much as I do now, but now I am the better writer. I remember early on in my writing career when I would sit down with my muse and she would help me zip out an article or essay in less than an hour. Another half hour of polishing up and half an hour to type it out and check for errors, and that was it. Iwould send my finished article out and wait for an acceptance. And since I was sending mostly to smaller refund and coupon-related publications, the essays were usually accepted and I got my minimal payment check and a pat on my ego at the same time.  Those early clips from Refunding Makes Cents and Refund Express were enough to impress a small-town newspaper editor and I got my first writing-related job as a news correspondent. When the editor offered me the opportunity to write a bi-monthly column entitled, “From the Hearth,” I thought I had reached the pinnacle of success. It was wonderful to be paid to spout off my own opinions and observations.  After Matthew, my fifth child, was born, I continued attending school board and city council meetings with a nursing newborn in tow. I juggled the diapers and the deadlines for awhile, until he stopped sleeping through most of the meetings, but I still managed to complete my first book when he was still a toddler. Since then my writing credits have expanded to include publication in several national magazines, regular publication in a Dubuque regional publication, and some essays I’ve had included in book anthologies such as Chicken Soup for the Soul andVoices of Caregiving.  And along the way, my method of writing has changed as well. 

I still begin the same way; scratching out my rough drafts on a legal pad of paper with a pen, but now I am well aware that my first draft might be total crap. But that is okay. That first draft serves me well. It forces me to write, knowing that something good can come from it. There is no such thing as “Writer’s Block” if you know that what the block represents is your fear that what you write will not be any good. So what? Write anyway. You can always throw it away later, and that first draft gets your creative juices flowing.  Writing a letter to a friend describing your inability to write can do the same thing.  Just start writing.  Don’t wait for “the muse” to take hold of you and inspire you, or you might be waiting three years later.  Just sit down and write.  Get something down on paper and set it aside and look at it the next morning. Is there something there that you can use?  If you wrote for a single hour each day you will likely find something in the mess that is good, even if it is only one paragraph or one single sentence.  Take that sentence and make a poem out of it, or a new article. Some of my best essays started out as something else.

Now I always set aside that day’s writing for the next morning’s writing session. And when I think I am getting close to being finished I might send it to my good friend Mary to look at.  I never used to have anyone else look at my writing. I didn’t even think it was good enough for others to see until it was printed, and then I would run off copies to share. Having it published was validation for me, validation that it was good enough. Now, I know it needs to be “good enough to share” before I ever send it.  Mary has an English teaching degree and is a writer herself. She belongs to several writing groups and is used to critiquing.  My advice to any fledgling writer would be to find your own Mary (I’m NOT sharing mine!) The very first time I worked up the courage to send Mary one of my articles (which I thought was completed) and she sent it back with marks all over it, I was a bit taken aback. She’d circled words, underlined sentences, made question marks and exclamation points on the sides. Once I got over the initial shock, I took another look at the pages and realized she had some very valid points and that I could, indeed, improve my essay with additional editing.  Now Mary and I exchange rough drafts with ease and make comments or suggested changes with no qualms.  When I was working on my book manuscript during 2007 and 2008 I had several people taking a look at what I had written. Mary spent hours poring over my pages, as did David’s radiation oncologist and David himself. I loved when a chapter would return from Mary and I could edit some more. All of these people read my book one chapter at a time. It was when I was working on it one day and read it as a whole that I suddenly realized an entire chapter needed to be moved.

Then when I was polishing up my manuscript for publication, my son Dan dowloaded a Microsoft Word program to replace my Works and suddenly a computer program was highlighting words and sentences that could be improved. I spent a good three week’s going over everything with a fine-toothed comb again, changing entire sentences and paragraphs, and improving the book in the process.  I loved this aspect of editing, playing with words like a toddler plays with their food. I wore out my Reader’s Digest Complete Wordfinder, substituting words. At least, I loved it the first ten times, but there finally came a point when I’d pored over the manuscript so many times I no longer cared if it was going to be published with an error, I was confident it would be a minor error.

So that is what I am doing this morning; playing with words and phrases until my essay conveys exactly what I want it to convey, in the best way possible.  This is the fourth draft I am printing out to go over once again, and each time I like it better. Somehow I will know when it is truly finished, and at that time I will send it off in cyberspace for someone else to judge its merit.

And if it isn’t accepted, I will take another look at it and see if I can improve it in any way or gear it towards another market, and send it out again.  Because if there is one truth I have learned in the past twenty years of writing, it is that writers will always face rejection, but you can’t be accepted if you don’t send anything out!

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