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Early Drafts: Where You Find Your Story

What exactly are early drafts, anyway? Why revision is more than just cleaning up the copy. It's where you find your story.

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In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s book of essays about writing, she says that she writes three drafts. The first is “the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental, where you check every tooth to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”

Lamott makes it sound like she writes a book in three discrete drafts, which is not my experience of writing at all. I write many drafts before I submit work for feedback, and then I write more in the lead-up to publication. Instead of dividing my writing process into Drafts 1, 2, and 3, I divide it into Early Drafts, Middle Drafts, and Final Drafts.

So what ARE early drafts, anyway?

The early part of my drafting process is messy, and because of this, you have to be able to tolerate the messiness of early drafts to be a writer. Of course, you also need to have the desire to clean up your messes to be a writer. That’s called “revision.”

Early drafts are where I figure out what the story is about. I write to discover what it is I’m trying to say. There are some scenes I write during the early drafts that might not end up in the final draft but which help me get to know my characters.

Early drafts: An illustration working hard at revision.

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I write many early drafts, 20 or more sometimes. I might write a scene where my protagonist goes on a job interview, or on a date, or to Coney Island, just to see how they’ll cope or how others will react to them. Even the dead-ends that don’t end up in the final version of the story are useful. They are a part of the process that leads to valuable insights. It is in this stage where I might figure out, for instance, that while I wanted my protagonist to be a bartender, she’s actually pretty antisocial. Maybe a job as a temp job doing data entry might be a better fit. In this way, in fits and starts, I begin to know my characters and what story of theirs I want to tell.

Every writer’s process is unique, but allowing time in the early stages for a piece of writing to ripen and develop can add depth and originality to our work. Rather than rushing through those early drafts, why not see where they lead you?

The Early Drafts

Because early drafts are messy and experimental, they can be frustrating. There are moments, as I’m writing, where I wonder if it will ever come into focus. Keeping the faith, therefore, that it will eventually work out is essential.

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I have a voice in my head that I call my Negative Editor. It is a critical voice and one that I banish during the early drafts of a piece. It is easy to ruin a project in its early stages by being too judgmental. I let all ideas flow during these early drafts, knowing that I can be a more negative, critical editor later, but for this phase, an openness to new ideas is essential.

Dissatisfaction is what drives revision, and there is a lot of dissatisfaction for me during these early drafts. It helps to remember that being irritated and unhappy with the piece during this stage is a natural part of the process and that the piece will improve as I continue to work on it. It also helps to remember that no one but me will see it, so I play around, try to have fun, and I don’t edit out potentially good ideas during this part of the process.

Pay attention to your characters. If a scene isn’t working, rather than force the character into that plot point, try putting them somewhere else and see if that works better.

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I do not share my work during the Early Draft stage. I don’t even talk about it with anyone. These early stages of creativity are quite delicate, and showing a draft to people too early can make me want to quit.

These first drafts tend to get long. That’s OK. As I get to know my characters and uncover the pulse of the story, I am adding things in. The early drafting phase is one where my story is expanding.

The Middle Drafts

Once I know my protagonist well and know what the heart of the story is, I move into the middle drafts, where I shape and cut. If there is a scene where my main character is brushing his teeth that goes on for four pages, I interrogate it. Is the scene in service of the larger story? If not, is there any part of it that matters to the larger story? If not, I cut it. Sometimes I have to cut things that I think are great sentences or scenes. Just because I like them doesn’t mean that they belong in this story. In this way, the middle drafts are a time of distillation.

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It is when I embark on the middle drafts that I do a “reverse outline,” writing out a list of scenes that have already been written. Then I stand back and look at the outline and see what I might want to move around, cut, or expand. Organization is an important part of the middle draft stage for me.

Whereas my early drafts tend to make the story longer, my middle drafts are where I begin to cut. If the early drafts are expanding, the middle drafts are often a time of contraction.

The Final Drafts

I wait until I’ve gotten the piece as good as I am capable of getting it before I show it to anyone. I have a friend who’s a writer, and this would be when I share the draft with him. Once he gives me notes, I go back to the drawing board, integrate his notes, and then I share the draft with my agent, who often also has notes. All of these drafts I consider part of the final draft process.

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Once the piece feels ready for the world, I polish the sentences, looking for places where I could be more concise and/or precise. I nose around for too many adjectives, for lack of clarity, for through-lines that aren’t developed enough, etc. I also look for stuff that I tend to use too often.

Once the book is sold, I work with my editor on it, and depending on the publisher, that can be a big, long process. If you’re lucky (as I was), it’s also a thrilling and delightful process to have a smart editor who loves your book, working with you to get it into its best shape.

Copy edits happen at the very end, and so while I care about grammar and consistency, I don’t worry too much about this aspect of the piece until the copy editor gets involved.

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N. West Moss’ memoir, Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life, is out now from Algonquin. Her short story collection, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, was published by Leapfrog, and she has a middle grade novel called Birdy forthcoming from Little, Brown. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere.

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