First draft getting torn apart? This might be why.

Illustration: Stuart Miles,

Illustration: Stuart Miles,

As a freelance writer, It’s normal to deal with uncertainty, especially when you’re first starting out. But even as an experienced writer, I struggle with this perennial question:

Why do some of my drafts come back almost clean (or get no edits at all) while others get torn apart?

I’ve concluded that some of it probably has to do with editing style: Some editors are simply more heavy-handed than others.

But still, there are those instances where you think you’ve nailed it, only to receive extensive edits back from your client. What’s going on there?

Something like this happened to me recently, and I realized it had everything to do with my process, not with the editor. After turning in a draft on the day it was due, I received a reply from my client, remarking that the piece was well-written, but needed more work. The editor asked me to make some changes and graciously gave me several days to make them.

Over the next few days, and with fresh eyes, I dug back into the story and realized, beyond the editor’s comments, how lacking the story was as I’d originally written it. It was missing some key ideas the editor had asked me to cover in the original assignment meeting and the whole thing just didn’t hang together. Ouch.

I set to work making it right, re-writing paragraphs wholesale and moving others around for flow. I added new transitions and even some new pertinent subject matter. I found a new study to cite in my piece and interviewed a few new subjects. By the time I was done with draft 2, I had a much better story.

So what was the problem with the original draft?

The problem was, it was the original draft.

I handed in my first draft instead of allowing myself time to re-work it. And that’s always a mistake.

Any experienced writer will tell you that it’s rarely, if ever, OK to hand in your first draft.

Even the best writers need time and space to revise. Need convincing? Consider what Ernest Hemingway said on the subject:

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

If Hemingway needed re-writing, so do the rest of us. And sure, we may be able to get by with handing something in on the first draft from time to time, especially when the story is easy (I call those one-and-dones; one source, one interview, one draft). But eventually, last-minute writing will catch up with us.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, this is yet another reason why I’ve resolved to give myself a week to revise a first draft before handing it in. It’ll be difficult. I’ll have to be a lot quicker with my front-end reporting and transcribing. I’ll have to motivate myself to write a big, long story even when the deadline is still a week away. But I think I can do it, and I’ll bet the freelance farm on the fact that my editors will be happy with the results.

Have you learned a key lesson about writing recently? Did you find an error in this post that could have been caught if I’d given myself more time to revise? What are you wearing? Come on, just drop a comment already!

2 thoughts on “First draft getting torn apart? This might be why.

  1. Nice point about the need for drafting (as I call it) before sending. I learned the value of this over the years, but never more forcefully than when I worked for a newspaper in the days before desktop computers, when the memory for the entire enterprise was stored in a mainframe in the basement of the building. One day the mainframe ate every piece of copy that had been turned in for the previous 12 hours. As soon as we recovered from the shock, rewrote, and hit ‘save,’ it happened again. And again. Traumatic as it was, I kept noticing how each successive draft got better than the one before. Since that day, I have never again needed a computer to teach me the lesson that writing more than one draft is always a good thing.

    Nice work.

  2. Thanks, Nick! Wow, I can’t even imagine a situation like that. There’s no doubt in my mind that computers make us better writers. (So do stints at daily papers. If I were a teacher and had students interested in pursuing magazine work, I’d tell them all to spend at least a few months writing for a daily first.) But even though we’ve all been editing on screen for years now, I still catch things in galleys and printed copies of my own work that I don’t catch on a computer screen. So there’s one area where value still resides in the paper copy, I suppose.

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