Rolling Through the Rough Draft

Rolling Through the Rough Draft

Writing is actually pretty simple, at least as long as you keep one thing in mind. I’m a writer; the rough draft has no power over me. It is creation, you are the creator. Before your 10 digits dance across the keyboard or scrawl across the pages of a steno while ideas rain around you, the rough draft is nothing more than a never was.

At first, those erratic fragments of thought don’t need to make sense to anyone other than you. When you’re scribbling your sloppy copy, it’s far more important to capture ideas than it is to train them. Rewriting, well that’s a different story.

Only after the draft is sitting finished on the table, should you wade through your stream of thoughts to decide which are worthy of living and which ideas must be murdered in cold blood, abandoned to rough draft refuse, and shed like old unneeded skin.

This is where it can get difficult. You must draft your revision with care, wandering through your prior words with discretion while trying to make your self love and loathing link hands and skip rope. If the first draft is a tornado of ideas, the second is when it’s time to determine what’s imperative to the narrative and what must be dragged to the trash and wiped from the hard drive.

Not too long ago, I was looking at the rough draft of my novel. Rather, I was crawling through the pages of an overly long and tedious section. This particular piece seems to simply go on and on and on some more, adding a dollop of drivel rather than driving the  story. Back in the rough draft, when flow was more important than direction, I fell in love with this ordinary middle class family that lies in the center of an otherwise fantastic yarn. Apparently, I also fell in love with every machination of their day.

In the rough draft, a lovingly tedious narrative follows this family as they go a shopping trip the day after Christmas. They rise from rest, go shopping, have lunch, then drive around town a bit before finally heading back home. They throw themselves a fashion show, strut their new ensembles, then sit down to their evening meal. Not one single event, relevant to the story, occurs until well after dinner.

If that sounds boring, I thank you for your faith. The actual text reads with the amount of excitement typically found in a chess game played by mail. Now imagine the scene elasticized  to 3000 words or so and you’ll get an idea about the roughness of my draft.

Funny thing is I was in love with that chapter prior to writing it. I smiled in my head as I fell to sleep, certain I’d adore it the next day in black and white.

I loathed if fiercely in the rewrite. 30 pages pass without a single event essential to the story. That’s like promising to take your kids to Disneyland, but telling them you have to drive through Arizona first.

Never let your ideas fade. There is a beautiful story buried in that shopping trip. It just happens to be in the wrong book. I don’t yet know where it will one day be. I only know where it will not go. A good writer can never allow affection for their own worlds or worlds to take precedence over the merit and direction of the tale.

This entire section now reads, “Later, at dinner…”

The Collective Inkwell Community Question: Writing Great Copy‘s important. Do you have a hard time editing your work, or do you find it difficult to delete your ideas?

ci-contest-boxSpeaking of good stories, there’s just one week left to enter our contest to win a free premium Thesis WordPress Theme and other prizes!

Sean Platt is a full-time father and freelance writer who tweets.

26 responses to Rolling Through the Rough Draft

  1. Matt Hayward

    Sean, what a great post. I’m loving your writing style!

    I also had to chuckle at what the 3,000 section was reduced to. While, at the same time, a little sad: Sometimes, I think, such scenes might not serve to drive the story particularly but instead give an insight into the characters. Which is important; at least in my opinion.

    Perhaps this own preference of getting an insight into characters (I’ve been spoiled by the late Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, I think) is what makes it difficult at times for me to cut out portions of my text. I always find myself asking, “What other purpose can this serve?”

    Though cutting out entire sections can be difficult for me, I tend not to have too much problem when it comes to reducing what is in the various sections/chapters etc of my writing.

    As a reference point, perhaps (and a shameless plug of my own blog) this post will be useful to you.

    Again, I loved this post!


    Matt Hayward’s last blog post..A Promise Kept and A Teaser Given

  2. Vered - MomGrind

    I totally agree. I usually start with a very raw draft, and at that stage, I never worry about the writing. I just put raw ideas on paper. Later I revisit them and turn them into a blog post.

    Vered – MomGrind’s last blog post..Fear of Rape

  3. Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

    I clearly remember how freeing it was when I learned to let go of perfection and just throw myself into a rough draft with abandon. It’s therapeutic for the mind and soul, and good for the writing. All of the cliches and stiff ideas are purged from your system, and you’re left with gorgeous, raw materials ready for shaping.

    Although it helps, at first, to tell yourself repeatedly that no one will ever see the rough draft, I’ve found in my copywriting work that it’s also freeing to get to a place where you can share your brain dumps—at least with certain select collaborators. You never know what bit of randomness might spark an idea in someone else, which might turn into your biggest idea yet. Far too often, we hide away scraps out of embarrassment and pride, and in the process I think we lose lots of potentially great material.

    Kristin T. (@kt_writes)’s last blog post..Notre Dame, Obama & my own inconsistencies

  4. Sean

    Vered: No one spins gold the first time. It’s important to have the courage to start from nothing and the patience to revisit.

    Kristin T: “All of the cliches and stiff ideas are purged from your system, and you’re left with gorgeous, raw materials ready for shaping.” Perfectly put. I love thinking about the rough draft as raw material.

    Tracy: Yeah, my scrap file’s so big it blocks my wi-fi.

    Sean’s last blog post..Deeper Roots For Longer Branches: Writer Dad 2.0

  5. Mike Nichols

    I have had a lot of trouble with my “internal editor” over the years; it always wants to intrude while I am writing the first rough draft. After a lot of effort, I have tamed it to a great extent, so that I can just write and let the words fall where they may.

    I like your concept of “good content, but wrong book.” I have a whole pile of great ideas that found their way into the wrong first draft. They’re just waiting for the right situation to come along!

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Sean!

    Mike Nichols’s last blog post..Surviving the Recession, Part 4: 16 More Things You Can Do to Regain Control

  6. Daphne @ Joyful Days

    Hi Sean,

    I enjoyed reading this. It reminded of a phrase I remember from Stephen King’s book “On Writing”. He says you have to “kill your babies”. Your point that the family’s day is still a great story for another book is excellent, I thought.

    Daphne @ Joyful Days’s last blog post..Running from Commitment Phobia

  7. Heather @ alisgravenil

    I’m an AP English teacher and I find this is one of the most difficult concepts for young writers. For them, it is hard not to equate hard work with immediate brilliance. Writing is nonsensical to their instantly-gratified minds. The few that are successful are willing to let go and release their death grip on their initial draft. It’s a tough one. I don’t feel good about anything I’ve written until I’ve revised it a bunch of times. I’m glad you brought it up here.

    Heather @ alisgravenil’s last blog post..Maybe we can catch some wind

  8. Bamboo Forest - PunIntended

    I tend to have some ideas written down prior to writing and then write. But, really, I usually do not write quickly getting everything down prior to going to the 2nd draft. Instead, I write slowly even from the beginning which could very well be a mistake.

    I need to experiment.

    You write:

    “A good writer can never allow affection for their own worlds or worlds to take precedence over the merit and direction of the tale.”

    I don’t do too much fiction. I have no problem getting rid of ideas in my posts that I feel don’t enhance what I’m trying to get across. I enjoy being very lazer focused.

    Bamboo Forest – PunIntended’s last blog post..7 More Bizarrely Named U.S. Towns

  9. Sean

    Mike: Thanks. We may have to murder our darlings, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give them a little bit of Frankenstein magic, bring them back to life, and lend them wander around in a different world, right. Good content, wrong book. I like that a lot.

    Daphne: Hi Daphne! Exactly. I think the original quote is actually from Agatha Christie. She says we must, “murder our darlings.” Same sentence different century. Either way, we must be ruthless with our thoughts and place them in their best home.

    Heather: I didn’t get this until very recently. I always wanted to write perfection on the first draft. It didn’t even occur to me that such a thing wasn’t possible! Of course that was before I was actually writing. Now that I spend all day doing it, I’m perfectly comfortable writing marginal material the first round as long as there’s a lot of space for me to breathe a bit of beauty back into it in the second go-round.

    Bamboo: I used to do that, but not anymore. Sometimes I even keep typing jibberish just to keep my fingers moving and prompting my mind to keep up. An edit is for cleaning it all up. I can always edit copy, but a lost idea is gone forever.

  10. Tumblemoose


    I think it’s called a rough draft because that is what it is on the writer: rough.

    As hard as it may be to get that draft in place, it’s harder still to “kill your darlings” and shave 20% (minimum) right off the top.

    This site is new for me, and I’m glad I’ve found it, Sean.

    I’ll be subscribing now!


    Tumblemoose’s last blog post..Tumblemoose Times – A writer’s newsletter

  11. Marc - WelshScribe

    Sean, thanks for making me smile and chuckle; “sloppy copy”, love it!

    I’ve found that if my writing looks like verbal diarrhoea then I really am talking sh..

  12. Paisley (Paisley Thoughts)

    I used to believe my writing is too sparse and tried to make it more but it just didn’t work. When I put more it loses its essence and flow. Does this have anything to do with style of writing? Inevitably, I get rid of sentences and words I love (and am quite proud of) because they upset the flow.

    I really enjoyed this post because I’m learning all the time.

    Paisley (Paisley Thoughts)’s last blog post..Having a Blog Changes You

  13. Sean

    George: I’m glad you’re here. We’re only in our third week, but there’s no doubt this site is gonna be a whole lot of special.

    Marc: I confess: sloppy copy is totally Cindy’s phrase. I stole it while she was sleeping.

    Paisley: I used to do the same thing. Now I know if I have something short, well than that’s the length it’s supposed to be. I never add prose just to lengthen the word count though, as I feel it dims the overall message. And in the rough draft? Word counters are turned off entirely.

    Sean’s last blog post..Deeper Roots For Longer Branches: Writer Dad 2.0

  14. janice

    Good piece, Sean, and I’m enjoying ‘meeting’ all the new folk you and Dave have attracted.

    For me, writing has echoes of gardening. Thoughts, notes and quotes are seeds, each carrying their own blueprints of what they’re destined to become. To have the best chance of success, the key is to let them germinate, then plant them in the right place and at the right time. Nurture as necessary, then trust them and let them grow. Then comes the thinning out, pruning, shaping , digging up, or cutting back. Prune too soon, and you can kill or prevent flowering. Let weeds take over and the same thing happens. Some rejected ideas become compost for others, some can be propagated or transplanted somewhere else. Nothing’s ever wasted. Gardeners, like writers, actually enjoy the process; we strengthen our muscles, get some fresh air and constantly create new vistas of promise and potential. We make the world a better place, just by believing we can and by trying to.

    I, for one, am happier burning weeds than killing babies!

    janice’s last blog post..Choose the Right Words and Change your Life

  15. Melissa Donovan

    Good for you – for knowing what needs to be cut and for cutting it! Many writers get too attached to passages like the one you’ve described. I’ve seen it in plenty of novels, so sometimes these sections even slip past the editors. Published authors often say “writing is revision.” Ain’t it the truth!

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..What? You Thought Poetry Writing Was Easy?

  16. Sean

    Janice: Alright Janice, you win. Burning weeds is definitely better than doing anything to little darlings, though it probably isn’t nearly as catchy a headline. : > )

    Davina: That’s well articulated, Davina. I am the same. No difficulty, but sometimes my left and right brain do get into a bit of a scuffle.

    Melissa: Perhaps if I’d grown up as a writer I’d have more difficulty, but the truth is, as much as I love long winded prose, I’m a fairly practical guy. So chop chop, wicky wicky and all that jazz.

    Sean’s last blog post..Deeper Roots For Longer Branches: Writer Dad 2.0

  17. Mary Anne Fisher

    Thanks for this critical reminder (and great read), Sean. After many years of writing, I’m still a bit slow when it comes to [serious] cutting.

    But when I do get to it, my work is always dramatically improved and it feels fantastic to boot! And the more cutting and rearranging I do, the better the copy gets and the better I feel.

    I’m really enjoying your posts and getting to know you! 🙂

  18. Iain Broome

    Indeed it takes great courage to murder your darlings, but rather than beat them to a pulp and throw them in the canal, I always pop them in a cupboard in case I want to return to them.

    I have a number of notepad files called ‘scraps’ where good, well-written paragraphs live after they’ve been deemed unnecessary in their original context. Your sentence, ‘It happens to be in the wrong book’ is absolutely right.

    Don’t murder your darlings, just suffocate them until you need them to breathe again. Yuck.

    Iain Broome’s last blog post..How to find your perfect writing partner

  19. Sean

    Mary Anne: Thanks, Mary Anne. I’m enjoying getting to know you as well. I LOVE smart people and you are a firecracker.

    Iian. We should just bury them up to their necks in the sand so they can’t move, then drive to the beach when we need them. : > )

    Sean’s last blog post..My Daughter Danced For Me

  20. Murder Your Darlings

    […] in the week, over at the Inkwell, I talked about writing in rough draft and how it’s best just to sometimes let go. Sometimes writers have a difficult time with […]

  21. Bud Hennekes

    I love it!

    The writing and editing process are two completely different things. When writing it is important we take the time to allow our ideas to sit and form in our unconscious mind.

    Simply putting all our ideas down does wonders in creating a powerful message.

    When writing we should always ask ourselves ” does this path have a heart?” If it does? Keep writing.. If it doesn’t? Keep writing..

    You’re a great writer Sean and a big inspiration.

    Bud Hennekes’s last blog post..The Power of Meditation

  22. jan geronimo

    But dollops of drivel – what about these darling little babies? They are cute and apt to make me look smart. Darn. Well, if you say so…

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