The Truth about Writing
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything–down on paper,” writes Anne Lamott in her 1995 classic book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
“A friend of mine says that the first draft is the
down draft–you just get it down.” Anne Lamott
The headline image to this blog post is the Down Draft of a section from my book
book, P.S. Happy Birthday: Beatin’ the Celebration-cheatin’ Christmas Baby Blues. Ultimately, I called the section, “The Birthday Sabbatical.” I didn’t know that, though, at this stage. All I knew was that I wanted to talk about the three months I take off annually to celebrate my birthday. As Lamott shares in the above quote, I was simply getting ideas down. This is what writing teacher Natalie Goldberg calls “first thoughts.” Once I had my Down Draft it was easier to take the next step and ask, “what am I really trying to say?” Knowing what you want to write about happens in the doing.
“The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up.
You try to say what you have to say more accurately.” Anne Lamott
My writing goes through scores, if not hundreds of revisions before I consider it final. I’m sharing a truncated view of those iterations. Still, the idea remains the same. I’m carving away, looking to sharpen the idea. You can see in my Up Draft I realized that my three-month birthday celebration was a form of sabbatical. That gives me the subtitle for this section of the book and a frame for the narrative arc of the idea.
Also, note the lessened volume of ink on the page. My ideas are getting sharper, clearer. Editing the Down Draft to the Up Draft stage is like panning for gold. Lots of mud, rocks, and randomness. But sift long enough and you begin to see a glint of thread emerge. The core idea. “Oh, this is what I want to say.”
“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.” Anne Lamott
The Dental Draft is where I spend the most time, tweaking, carving, slicing, shaping. Easily, my writing goes through scores of Dental Drafts. The core idea doesn’t change. Rather, it’s where the rhythm and poetry take shape. And as Lamott notes with the word, “dental,” it’s intricate, slow, and yes, sometimes tedious. You polish and pick and keep polishing until the writing reaches a high shine.
Here are two “Dental Drafts” for the same birthday sabbatical section, which I ultimately called, “Circumnavigating the Sun.” The yellow highlights also show what changed during the next iteration of the Dental Draft. Again, it’s tightening of the language, smoothing rough edges, attending to flow. The main idea doesn’t change much. It only becomes clearer.
Final (Published) Version
This is the final version that’s published in the book. Notice the language tweaks in paragraphs four through seven, as compared to the draft that comes before. It’s those small changes that make the difference between polished writing and the clunky variety.
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