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Go long & cut, or write short & add?

Writers share their best tips for penning first drafts.

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While interviewing Lauren Groff about her novel Fates and Furies, I was most fascinated by her drafting process. She told me that she wrote all of her drafts by hand, on large pieces of butcher paper taped to her walls, over and over again. It was an elaborate and seemingly exhausting process, one that was completely opposite to my own.

When all writers sit down to write their first draft, they’re faced with the eternal question as they stare at that blank screen – do I write long and cut later, or write short and fill it all in?

In a “skeleton” draft, the author can lay out the basic plot beats and begin to get a feel for how the characters move through the world before filling in trees and wallpaper and internal monologue later on. But that desire to write tightly can sometimes make it difficult to know what needs to be filled in afterward and lose some of that spur-of-the-moment plotting.

By contrast, in the crudely named “vomit” draft, the writer puts everything onto the page and cuts later in the process. The beats, character, and setting are all there, but so are the rambling scenes and long-winded descriptions of trees, and the writer must be ruthless in what gets cut, with no room for sentimentality.

I prefer the skeleton draft, capping out at around 53,000 words in the first draft, with the action, at times, seemingly taking place in an empty white space. But how do other authors do it, and what are the pros and cons of each method? I asked six authors to share their own processes… and received six very different answers.

 

Hilary Davidson, author, Evil in All Its Disguises

I’ve actually shifted from writing huge, overstuffed first drafts that needed to be cut back to writing much shorter first drafts that need to be fleshed out later. I think it happened because I became more analytical about my process, and I realized that it wasn’t unusual for me to throw out 30,000 words – or more – from a first draft. These weren’t pages of extravagant description, but I had a habit of obsessing over scenes when I didn’t know how to move the plot along. I felt like if I just kept writing, I would figure it out…which was true but that involved a lot of wasted time and effort. Now I literally skip ahead in the story, without worrying about how I’m going to connect these scenes. I trust that by the time I’m on the second draft, I’ll have figured it out.

 

Paul Guyot, screenwriter, Geostorm

Never write short and add. That’s a recipe for disaster, in my humble opinion, and know of no professionals who do that. The first draft is for everything, that’s why some refer to it as the “vomit draft,” etc. You put it all in, everything, so then you see what works, what doesn’t, what is overwritten or underwritten. To write a short first draft only hurts you because you can’t tell if something you left out works until you see it in there. So, you’re causing yourself more work by writing “short.”

 

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Nick Mamatas, author, The People’s Republic of Everything

I am definitely a putter-inner rather than a taker-outer. I often write in a fugue state and by the seat of my pants, so things I know about the story, information or implications that I consider obvious, are often hidden from my first readers. Either that, or I wake up in the middle of the night, suddenly remembering something I had forgot. Occasionally, I’m driven to make a note of it, but, honestly, usually I just forget again when I awake, or the note I wrote in the dark no longer makes any sense in the daylight.

 

Sarah Weinman, author, The Real Lolita

For short stories, my method used to be this beautiful thing where first drafts would emerge in almost single bursts, never needing much editing, still getting accepted by publications (with rejections not bothering me overmuch.) The older I got, the more complicated first drafts became, written piecemeal, bits here and there over long periods of time, editing as I went, then editing more thereafter. And for my book, the first draft was written in such nonlinear fashion – chapters out of order, sections out of time – that it was a triumph to get to the finish line, at which time I realized….it was a shorter book than I thought it would be. And the editing process cut a lot and made me add a lot, but it’s still a short book, and turns out that was the exact length it needed to be.

 

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Matthew Quinn Martin, author, Nightlife

I cut a lot more than I add (and usually only add if an editor requests some clarity/tension/etc.). Probably about 35-45 percent on average goes in the round file. One of the benefits of working on a manual typewriter for drafts is that when you cut something, you are actually “cutting” it. Like with scissors. And then when I have to put it in electronic format, if I find myself not wanting to type something, then I also tend to leave it out. If it’s not worth re-typing, it’s not worth reading.

 

Alex Segura, author, Blackout

I tend to go short first – short, lean with LOTS of notes to myself, like “expand” or “add better description.” First drafts are about framework and setting up the pillars of what will hopefully be a strong, sturdy house. You don’t want to get bogged down in the details because, honestly, the details don’t matter yet. You’re laying the foundation and trying to figure out the broad strokes – for plot but also for your characters. You want that spark of emotion that leads you down a true path, one that reflects what your characters would do, not what you want them to do. For me, the only way to do that is to write quickly and without much ornamentation, which makes for a shorter, looser, and quicker first draft.

 

—Libby Cudmore is the author of The Big Rewind (William Morrow, 2016) and has written for Barrelhouse, Paste, PANK, and the anthologies Hanzai Japan, Welcome Home, and Mixed Up. She is the managing editor of the Hometown Oneonta and Freeman’s Journal newspapers in Cooperstown, New York, and hosts the weekly #RecordSaturday live-tweet at @LibbyCudmore.

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