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NOT PRECIOUS: A writing trick (for all kinds of writing)

*Ward’s Island, last day of summer, 2019  **This pic’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the post to follow, just thought she was purty.

*Ward’s Island, last day of summer, 2019

**This pic’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the post to follow, just thought she was purty.

[The advice here holds true I believe for writing novels or short stories, essays or speeches, important emails, telegrams, love letters, and especially, messages in a bottle. For you professional writers, I can’t imagine this will be news to you, just hopefully a helpful reminder of what you already know.]

When I’m not writing fiction (or blog posts), I’m splitting my time at the university these days between teaching English in the Languages and Linguistics Department and tutoring undergrads and graduate students in the Writing Department at York. Today a young woman comes in to the Writing Centre with a very rough draft of her assignment, and a minor one at that (two pages maybe). It’s not due for ten days, which for a second year student, is time management/organization skill-wise the equivalent of lifting a car off a baby, at least it is when compared with most undergraduate students. Certainly compared with me at that age. All of which is to say, this young diligent woman is already of a rare breed.

Anyway, she’s embarrassed about what she’s written, or part of it. It’s the last section of the assignment, the part that’s actually most important according to the prof. This young student wrote this last part really fast on the bus, she told me, and then typed it up and printed it out soon after. I missed why she had to rush to do this (seeing me ten days before it was due as she was) but think maybe her prof had asked them to bring in a rough draft.

Needless to say that last section, where she wanted me to spend most time helping her, was indeed rough and needed work. But it was by no means bad. I said to her, what you’ve done here is so, so important. For a number of reasons:

  1. You came in telling me how fast you wrote it and how crap it was; as such, you’ve opened the door in your own mind to feedback — you’re welcoming the criticism that will only serve to improve the work (maybe the very definition of how ALL good writing gets made); and

  2. You’ve done the hard part. Even if what she had written was a total “dog’s breakfast” as my dad might once have referred to it (and again, it wasn’t), she’s gotten something down. The first draft is complete. She now needs only cut the fat and elaborate on/improve the good stuff. The blank page has been filled alleviating the massive anxiety, because for many a writer that is the hardest part. It’s taken me about 12,500 hours of fiction writing to learn what my 2nd year student is already doing. The mantra a writing mate once taught me. To conquer the blank page the key is quite simple, with your first draft:

Don’t be precious!

The biggest mistake I made with “Ana Begins”, the manuscript I completed last winter, was how much time I put into polishing prose that would never see the light of day. Terrified of the blank page and moving forward, I would revisit my opening (of the potentially dozens (not exaggerating) there were) again and again. What I didn’t understand then, what I couldn’t, is that invariably, especially with one’s first (real) crack at a novel, you don’t actually know what your story is about until it’s complete. Certainly the case for me.

Instead of plodding forward, out of fear I was going back. Any excuse not to continue. What hurt most was that of those many, many openings I chipped away at, flossed, caressed, and massaged like some Wagyu side of beef, they’re all gone. I was so precious with that stuff I used to create extensive “Cut” files, as if I were to one day go back and retrieve those beautiful nuggets of prose I thought I might need to resurrect. Except the expression is to ‘kill your darlings’, not to resurrect them. The stuff that looks so pretty, invariably it’s just your ego reflecting back and effectively blinding you.

On a less esoteric level, and in effort to provide advice to writers of all kinds based based on mistakes I’ve made, and that I’m working hard not to make in the new manuscript I’ve just started:

Don't be precious with the first draft because your first draft will be crap.

Don’t be precious with the first draft so you can welcome criticism and be all the more ready for the not small undertaking that is so often the vast rewriting also known as the second draft.

Don’t be precious with the first draft because preciousness is but another word for perfectionist and as we all know there is no faster path to getting nothing done than using perfection as the great resistor to just about anything.

Don’t be precious with the first draft because this is the surest way to increase your anxiety about the writing process and stop you from writing anything at all (I think I’m just paraphrasing the last point — see perfectionism above).

Don't be precious with the first draft because good writing requires so many different parts of our brain that trying to do the many things we want to do when we write (build good sentences, build suspense, be interesting, be grammatically accurate, all of it!), it’s simply too hard to do it all at once. So just get the thing down, if but the bare bones of it.

Don’t be precious with the first draft most of all because like lacing up one’s shoes and going for a run (or so I’ve heard ;) is the hardest part. Once you’re out there, you’re doing it. And to just get a little ink on that page .. well then you have the chance to be off and running.

Jon Mendelsohn