A couple of days ago, on Twitter, @joseordonezUT asked if I had any tips for a new writer. As you may have noticed, I don't really do tips on here, partly because as soon as I think of a tip, I think of a reason why it's not always true, and before I know where I am two more paragraphs and a set of bullet points have unrolled themselves out of my fingers. But of course, as soon as I thought "I don't do tips", I remembered a good one.
Write your first draft for yourself,
your second draft for your reader,
and your third draft for your agent.
The basic idea is that you use the first draft to work out what you want to say about all this stuff you have in your head, and then you re-work it to make sure that what you're saying is clear for someone who isn't you. And, finally, you re-work it again, to make it not only clear, but persuasive, because your agent must go out to the marketplace with something which actively persuades editors of how an how powerfully it works on readers, and why that working is irrestible.
"Actively persuasive" probably means more direct language, and it absolutely certainly means more exact language: words which do the work you want more precisely and leave no ambiguity except where you want some. It might also mean cutting away some detail which adds richness or interest but softens or complicates the forward-drive of the argument. On the other hand it might mean adding detail to make sure the practical or emotional logic of the narrative - the "causally related chain of events" - is never broken, but leads the reader irresistibly to the end you've chosen.
So far, for fiction, and creative and trade non-fiction, so good. But this tip is particularly at the front of my mind because it's one of the most universal. I realised very early as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow that, mutatis mutandis, it applies just as usefully to academic writing, and to blogs, reports, CVs and personal statements, advertising flyers, and just about anything which needs to persuade, convince, seduce or simply satisfy a reader. (I first typed "simply pleasure", but changed it in the third draft, on the grounds that it's too soon to blog again about writing sex.)
"Agent", of course, is representing anyone whom you hope will buy your work, just as part of a real agent's job is to reflect back to you what potential buyers will be thinking. So it's obvious that "agent" here also covers "editor" or "publisher" or even, confusingly "reader" again, if you're self-publishing and so selling direct. Shall we file them all under "hoped-for buyer"?
And it's moderately obvious that even if you're not selling a product or a newspaper, in business writing and journalism you're trying to persuade your "hoped-for buyer" that you are the person to hire or watch; that your assessment of last week's industrial accident is the right one and your proposals should be implemented; that your judgement of the value of funding next year's training exercise is correct and the budget allocated; that your excitement reflects the real rejuvenating power of this hair-dye or that model of motorbike. They are your hoped-for buyer because you want them to "buy into" your take on this thing.
But it took me a while to work out what the equivalent of "hoped-for buyer" was for academic writing. Your tutor or examiner is a reader, but they're not a buyer. Did that mean that - yay! - academic writers only need two, instead of three, drafts? No, sorry. Because, whatever academics like to tell themselves and each other, clarity is not the sole goal of what you write; you also need to persuade. Even the clearest setting-out of facts is no use - gets no one any further - without interpretation of their signficance, if only about what the next stage in this research should be. Even then, whether your reader does or doesn't buy into your marshalling and interpreting of the facts, and whether they'll cite you, quote you, give you a good grade, a good reference, a good grant or a good job - or any job ... will depend partly on how third-draft-persuasively you've written the thing.
But, why this order: 1) self - 2) reader - 3) buyer? Why postpone thinking about who might buy it till you've (re-)written the thing twice already? And, conversely, do you really have to give up on your own tastes and interests after that first draft? No, of course not. Some writers go through the first-second-third cycle for each chapter, or even each paragraph, before they move on. Some are barely aware of the cycling. Others keep the stages as clear and separate as they can, so they know what kind of thinking they should be doing. (Printing-out helps the demarcation.)
And it's not necessarily a bad thing to think about your hoped-for buyer, in your early stages of imagining and planning: there's wisdom, not shame, in thinking "Will people want to read this?" as long as you can then let go of that kind of external judgement, so as to live inside the bubble of what this story needs and wants for that crucial first draft. Indeed, in academic writing in particular, I think it can be dangerous to get too carried away with the persuasive prose in first draft, if it means you overlook the fact that some logic doesn't hitch up, or some point not properly proved.
Finally, what of the writers who say "I don't write for anyone except myself"? I think they are either lucky in having good craft and a big overlap between their tastes and those of a good, solid market's-worth of readers and will do very well, or they will never get published. Either that, or they're only talking about first drafts, in which case most of us could say it. (Or they're lying: Barry Manilow, asked about how he decides which songs to record, and which to put out as singles, is refreshingly honest: "Whichever the record company thinks will sell". Few writers except James Patterson are quite so honest.)
Even my agent, when I was fretting about whether my editor would dislike something in the first draft of A Secret Alchemy, said, "Just write it. We'll worry about the rest later." The value of this tip, I think, is that it helps real beginners to understand that their job is communication, and communication means thinking about your listener as much as your speaking self. Writing several drafts isn't a sign of failure, and it isn't a waste of time. But it also helps the more experienced writers to relax, write the book you want to write, and worry about the rest later.