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Itchy Bitesized 2: Three Things about Semi-colons

Itchy Bitesized 1: Three Things about First Drafts

Welcome to the first in what I hope is a new series for the Itch. Itchy Bitesized are short posts about all sorts of writing issues, from inspiration and process to craft, technique and the realities of the writing life. I thought a good topic for the first post would be first drafts!


For centuries, to write something you put words down on physical paper, and if some of those words needed changing, you crossed out or rubbed out, corrected, or pencilled in additions. At some point, whether just to see clearly what you'd got or to send it to readers, you probably had to re-write or re-type the whole thing, which created a new, second draft.

But with computers this clear-cut process has melted into something much more fluid. On screen, drafts always look perfect, and therefore finished; unless you use track changes, revisions sink invisibly into that perfection. And yet the process of producing the words in the first place hasn't changed, and it's hard, making something exist: "remembering something which never happened", as Siri Hustvedt puts it. Before that process, there were no words; after it, there are words.

So here are three ideas to help you keep going:

ClaudiusFontaineBorgel_BibliothèqueDeGenève_Ms-fr-3158 Wikimedia
1) First draft words needn't be the right words.

Think of them as avatars, place-holders, stand-ins, for what the right words will be. When you've got to the end of the story you'll have a much better idea of what the truly right words are. If you're sure they're not the right words - or there's a fact or an idea that needs checking or developing but the words are marching or crawling onto the page and you don't want to stop them - just put what you do have or know in [square brackets], or make a separate note. That way the thought is safely preserved and ready for you to come back to whenever it suits; square brackets are easy to search for. The only rule for drafting, I suggest, is DON'T FIDDLE

2) That fact that today you're bored by the writing may not mean the story is boring.

Some days it's only sheer will-power which keeps you plonking one word down and then another, and another. The fact that it's difficult today - or you're hating it today, or just really bored - is not necessarily evidence that the reader will be bored, or you've made bad choices in the writing. It may be the product of something quite external to the writing. Make a note that today it feels as it feels, and if you go on feeling discouraged and stuck, try some of these.

3) Not everyone works best by first-drafting straight through to the end of the story.

Anne Lamott's idea of the "shitty first draft", which I've adapted to a crazy first draft - is much preached to beginners because so many otherwise get stuck looking for the ultimate the right word. But although everyone by definition has a write-and-revise cycle, some writers need to switch from first-drafting into second-draft sorting-out-and-revising, more often. If you can't begin to work out what Chapter Ten needs to be until you've got Chapter Nine slapped into shape, then that's how you work; same goes if your cycle is a scene, or a page. Same goes too if you're an out-of-order writer and can't write the opening scene till you've written the midpoint, and got it roughly how it needs to be. So there's no one-size-fits-all process. Having said that, thorough-going, second-draft-style revising will inevitably leave gaps and slips, which is why many writers would agree that they work by some variant of a three-draft process

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Image credit:  Wikimedia Commons: The first pages of a chapter about the ruins of the Bâtie-Beauregard from the unpublished manuscript "Histoire de Collex-Bossy" by the historian Claudius Fontaine-Borgel (1838-1900), who worked at the municipality of Versoix. From the collections of the archive of the Bibliothèque de Genève (Ms. fr. 3158)