Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Increase the good (decrease the suck) Finish any piece of writing in 5 steps

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:


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?”


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.


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.


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.


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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Equally Lost Art of Receiving Notes

Somebody once asked me if coming up with all the lines my characters say was the hardest part of being a writer. I can say in all honesty, that probably doesn’t even crack the top ten. Easily ahead of that are: constantly tripping over the sacks of money at my place, being hounded by adoring fans when I’m just trying to have a quiet dinner with friends, and always being lauded as the voice of my generation.

Okay, those may or may not be true. Here’s one that actually is – the hardest part of being a writer is learning how to take creative notes and feedback. I have seen more than a few professional writing careers stall because of a complete inability to process feedback and turn it into a stronger next draft.

The biggest challenge lies in determining what notes you should take and which ones you should discard. If you ignore everything, you’re not going to have a long career in situations where you are in a collaborative creative environment. But if you accept and make changes based on every single note you receive, you’ll lose your own voice and the piece will be a creative disaster.

Consider the following two cases:

When The Walking Dead was being pitched to various networks, NBC wanted to put it on the air with one caveat – they wanted to make it a procedural where lawman Rick Grimes solves a Zombie-related crime each week. Any fan of the show knows that the executive who wanted to take this path needs to “look at the flowers.” 

Then there is the well documented saga of M Night Shamalan’s Lady In Water where the executives at Disney begged him to make changes to clarify the story because they were afraid the script he wanted to shoot would confuse and disappoint audiences. He stuck to his guns and the result was a creative and box office disaster that practically drove him out of Hollywood completely.

So when you receive notes on your writing, how do you know if they are NBC Walking Dead idiotic suggestions or Disney Lady in Water lifelines? This is the question that has tormented writers from the first time a Neanderthal looked at a cave wall and said “I’m liking the Woolly Mammoth motif but is there a way we can skew to a younger demographic?”

There are no easy answers to filtering and processing feedback however, here are some things to consider to help you with this difficult task.

Be of open mind and heart

Receiving feedback on your writing is a difficult process for everyone no matter how long you’ve been doing it or at what level. And it is very natural for any emerging writer to not want to hear a critique on something they have poured their heart and soul into. But sadly, opting out is not an option. You will receive feedback throughout your writing career and you need to approach the process with an open heart and mind.

This means when you give someone that first draft of your short story, screenplay, TV pilot, or novel for feedback, be prepared to hear both the good and the bad. As obvious as this seems, too often when a new writer says they want “honest feedback” what they are really saying is “I need you tell me how great this is.” So when any critical feedback is given, it is often met with anger, frustration, or disinterest. Of course you want to be told your writing is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (apologies to Dave Eggers) the first time out. But trust me, it’s not. Writing is rewriting so if the only response you will accept is ego-stroking praise, you’re in for a world of disappointment. More importantly, you won’t be in a mindset to take that critique and use it to make the work stronger the next time around.

Consider the source

Another defence mechanism against accepting feedback is to show it to family, friends, or pets, basically anyone who is almost guaranteed to give raving reviews. Then when presented with contradictory feedback from a neutral source, they’ll say defensively “Yeah, well I showed it to my best friend Jenny and she thought it was brilliant.” Jenny has to tell you she thinks it’s brilliant, it’s a requirement of being a BFF so you can’t take her word as Gospel.

On the other hand, if the feedback is coming from an editor, publishing company, literary agent, story editor or anyone else who appraises stories as a living, you might want to consider what they have to say even if you might not like it. And if more than one source says the same thing, give what they say serious consideration.

One flaw I see in a lot of early writing is a lack of clarity. Usually what happens is newbie writers forget that the reader doesn’t have all the information the writer has in their head and so when they try to tease the reader with dribs and drabs of information, all they end up doing is confusing the reader. When I point out the fact that I was confused and I’m afraid the other readers will be as well, they will point to an obscure mention on page three and say “That explains everything so they shouldn’t be confused.”

If there is ever a disagreement over clarity between the writer and the reader, the reader is almost always right. Trust those giving you feedback because there will be many times you are too close to the material to be objective.

Give yourself a cooling off period

The best technique to process difficult notes is one I had to learn the hard way. I had a feature film project in development with a national funding agency and we were getting notes on our application package to go from the first to second round of development. We received notes from the third party reader and when I first saw them, I was apoplectic. They were not very positive and pointed out a lot of structural and thematic holes in the project. So I reacted like any other professional would – I hit the roof.

I showed colleagues the notes and went through them one by one pointing out how the reader completely missed the point and was bringing their own personal agenda to their evaluation. I couldn’t believe how off the mark a so-called professional reader could be.

Jump ahead a week. I decided to give the notes one more look over just so I could once again revel in how right I was. Except, upon a second read, something strange was happening. As I read them I started thinking things like, “Well I guess they have a point there” and “Yeah, I suppose I hadn’t considered that.” I read them yet again a month later and, after an even longer cooling off period, I could see the merit in what was being said.

Here’s the valuable lesson I learned from that experience – notes that incite anger have some merit to them. Because if they were truly off the mark, we wouldn’t care. But when confronted with notes that contain inconvenient truths, we writers protect ourselves by using anger to shield us from those truths.

So I suggest that when you are faced with notes that turn you from Bruce Banner to full blown Hulk, go with it. Yell, scream, throw things around the room. Tell all your friends how wrong they are. Then, with that out of your system and a full two week cooling period behind you, look at them again.

Detach and look for ways to make it better

Last week I wrote about leading with the positive when giving notes however, there will be times when you won’t have this positive experience. Instead, the notes you receive will be very negative. When this happens the first thing you need to do is to remember, the notes are not about you personally, they are about the work.

A good friend and fellow writer recently had an experience where a client in a corporate writing situation responded to her first pass at the assigned work with a panicked “Dear God, what did you do? This is all wrong.” Despite the fact my friend is an incredibly gifted writer who has been doing this professionally for 25 years now, it still shook her to the core. However, she composed herself, probed for deeper analysis and discovered that the problem lied in the fact that the client failed to give proper instructions for what she wanted. With this new information, she was easily able to deliver something more in line with what the client wanted.

The key is that regardless of how negative the feedback may be, you need to sift through it and look for ways you can use it to make the next draft better. Nobody likes to hear negative feedback but in every bit of feedback there is something you can leverage to strengthen it in future drafts.

I think part of the problem is we as writers have been raised on the school/university system of receiving grades as an evaluation tool. We submit writing in the form of essays or assignments and we seek positive appraisal as a result. Writing in the real world is far different. A first draft is just the first step in a long process of completion so when we get early feedback, it’s not about ‘getting an A on the piece’ it’s about finding ways to make it better.

Be the defender of your story’s soul

This is where knowing the craft and understanding the fundamental elements of your story are so important. At some point in the process someone is going to suggest changes that will completely undermine your story’s structural integrity. Everyone else will be coming to the project with a different agenda and you will be the last great defender of the story you want to tell. So you need to know when these “death notes” are coming and find a way to address the issue without ruining your story.

I’ve had several experiences where I had to find a way to push back on producers notes because I could see they would totally unravel the story. Each time, I made my case and found a way to appease the producer without removing those key elements from the story. You need to know your story inside and out because you will certainly face this situation too at some point in your writing career.