My writing process, like my hairline, has “evolved” significantly from my junior high school days. Back then my writing process could not have been simpler. If assigned to write 500 words on topic X, I would begin writing the first things that came to mind. When I reached word number 500, I was done. It wasn’t so much an essay as it was an exercise in stream of consciousness. I recall teachers trying to explain how you do a rough copy and then transferring that to a good copy, but that never resonated with me. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would write an assignment twice when they could just write it once.
These days I possess neither the simplistic view of the writing process nor the flowing golden locks I did during the first Reagan administration. After years of working as a reporter, public relations specialist, screenwriter and editor, I finally realized that a first draft is never a final draft. And really good writing takes not one, not two — but five drafts. It never ceases to amaze me how many full grown adults in both creative and corporate settings still approach writing the same way I did in 1983.
I can’t count the number of times someone balked when I suggested that their screenplay could be improved in a second draft. “What, you mean I have to write this again?” they say with the same horrific inflection as if I suggested they should run over their own dog. Or all the times I had a corporate colleague say upon reading a first pass at a document “we can’t show this to the client.” "Of course we can’t, it’s just a first draft,” I would explain, trying not to sound like I was speaking to a small child.
The thing that very few people seem to grasp is that a first draft is the beginning of the writing process, not the end. I believe that any piece of writing is not done until it goes through five stages. Each stage has its own specific purpose designed to increase the good and decrease the suck. So here are the five steps of the writing process:
STEP ONE – FIRST DRAFT (TARGET 60% GOOD 40% SUCK)
The most important part of the first draft is completing it. No writer has ever, ever, ever, and I mean ever pumped out a brilliant complete work of genius in a first draft. As you can see above, if you can get 60% of it in the good, you are way ahead of the game.
Imagine you are at a pottery wheel and your first draft is that raw spinning lump of clay. Now picture me shirtless sitting down behind you like in the movie Ghost. There’s no real purpose for this last part, I just wanted to see if you would actually picture that. The important thing is to remember that like that lump of clay, your first draft will only somewhat resemble the finished product at this stage. I’ve looked back on several first drafts of mine that only barely resemble the finished product.
This is because the first draft is the proof of concept for the idea in your head. Even after you’ve planned it out and outlined it, you won’t know if it really works until you put it down on paper. Only then will you be able to determine what is working and what is not. And this is your only concern when evaluating the draft. It’s not to have everyone tell you how brilliant you are and it’s not a time to start rehearsing your Oscars speech. It is simply to figure out how to make it better in the next draft.
To determine this, you will need to get outside opinions. Always remember to tell people reading your first draft that you only care about notes on the CONTENT. There is nothing worse than getting back notes on a first draft that is all about grammar and copy editing. I don’t care a lick about grammar and spelling in my first draft. I once had an editor tell me “This is really good but do you think in the next draft, you could put in some punctuation?”
STEP TWO – SECOND DRAFT (TARGET 85% GOOD 15% SUCK)
This is always my favourite part of the process because it’s where the piece starts to look like what it will eventually become. You’ll notice that the good/suck ratio improved by 25% in this draft. It’s not finished by any stretch, but the end is in sight.
The most important part of the second draft is nailing down the structural integrity of the piece. If it is a piece of narrative writing, you should have the structure secured by the end of this draft. If it is a piece of corporate writing, you should similarly have the order and flow of your content firmly in place.
This can often be the scariest draft for new writers because it means throwing away the parts that don’t work and reworking the entire piece. I remember the fear I had when I had to do my first serious second draft after working with a professional story editor. I was terrified that if I tore it all apart, I wouldn’t be able to put it back together again. One of my greatest feelings of achievement was when I realized I could put it back together again and it was so much better than it was before.
This is the nature of going from first draft to second.
STEP THREE – THIRD DRAFT POLISH (TARGET 92% GOOD 8% SUCK)
This third ‘polish’ draft is meant to clean up those loose threads that remain after the second draft. Sometimes it means resolving nagging issues in the first draft that you didn’t quite fix in the second.
Often, it means reconciling the conflicts that exist from a different approach you might have taken in draft number two. Seeds that were planted and made sense in the first draft no longer make sense after the new direction, but you haven’t gone back to take them out. This is the time to make sure everything is aligned and serves the current direction.
You will feel really good after completing this draft and you will be tempted to start showing it around. Don’t! You feel like it’s ready but you have two more important steps to go.
STEP FOUR – PAGE TIGHTEN/DIALOGUE PUNCH DRAFT (TARGET 96% GOOD 4% SUCK)
This was always a very important stage for me because whenever I would write TV episodes that had to be 30 pages at the most, mine would always come in 41 pages. Not 40, not 42 but always 41. So once I had the content where I wanted it, I had to look for ways to get the page count down. So I would look to cut down the scene description and I would find dialogue that wasn’t absolutely necessary.
It's worth noting that this is where you stop using the creative side of your brain and start using the logical/puzzle-solving part of your brain. I stopped thinking like a writer and started thinking like an editor. The editor in me was often unforgiving on the writer. I’d think “This whole section isn’t necessary” OR “This can be said more succinctly.” It was incredible to see how many pages I could eliminate when going through this process.
The other goal at this stage is to go through it line by line and looks for ways to punch it up. If it’s a narrative piece, go through every line each character says and see if there is a way to improve upon it. Is every line the best it can be?
By the end of it, you will be amazed had how much better it reads than the third draft of which you were certain could not be improved upon.
STEP FIVE – GOOD OLE FASHIONED PROOFREAD (TARGET 100% GOOD 0% SUCK)
Okay grammar and punctuation nerds, here is where you can go to town. Now is the time to make sure things like grammar, spelling, and punctuation are all as they should be. I don’t want to suggest that these are not important because often projects will be discarded by the gatekeeper readers if they notice shoddy grammar or sloppy typos.
But it’s important to leave this to the very end because you will waste valuable time copy editing sections in a first draft that may be discarded completely in subsequent drafts. So wait until the piece is exactly as you want it from a content perspective and then make sure the grammar is pristine.
You have completed all five steps, and only now is your piece of writing ready to be shared with the world. Congrats! You probably feel immense satisfaction at getting the piece exactly the way you want it. If you feel the opposite, like this is way too much work, it’s probably a sign you are not ready for prime time. Your peers who are serious about getting that novel published or screenplay produced are busy putting in the work. If you do too, your writing will improve exponentially.
Oh, and by the way, THIS is what my hair looked like in junior high.
I'm the one on the left wearing the blouse and knickers. Hey, cut me some slack, it was the 80's.