Drafts and Revisions


A draft is an early version of a piece of writing. Most of us cannot compose anything well at the first try. We must write and rewrite. These initial efforts are called drafts, in distinction from the final version. As a rule, the more you draft, the better the result.

For drafting, the best advice is the same as for the free writing we discussed in Chapter 5: keep going and don't worry about small mistakes. A draft is not the end product; it is tentative and imperfect. Writing becomes impossible if you try to do it one polished sentence at a time. You get lost looking for perfection. Rough out your report or article, then develop and refine, keeping the total effect always in mind.

Accept imperfections. Don't linger over small problems. If you can't remember a spelling, get the word down and correct it later. If you can't think of exactly the term you want, put down what you can think of and leave a check in the margin to remind yourself to look for a more precise word. Your main purpose is to develop ideas and to work out a structure. Don't lose sight of major goals by pursuing minor proper spelling, conventional punctuation, the exact word. These can be supplied later.

There is a limit, however, to the similarity between drafting and free writing. Free writing involves exploration and discovery; your pencil should move wherever your mind pushes it. A draft is more reined in. You know, more or less, what you want to do, and the draft is an early version of an organized composition. Therefore you are not as free as in the exploratory phase. If you get into blind alleys in a draft, you must back out and set off in a new direction. The mistake will not be unproductive if it tells you where you don't want to be.

Some people prefer to draft with a pen or pencil; others can work successfully on a typewriter or word processor. If you draft in longhand, skip every other line and leave adequate margins: you will need the space for revisions. If you type, double space. Use only one side of the paper, reserving the other side for extensive changes or additions. When you number the pages of your draft, it's a good idea to include a brief identifying title: "First draft, p. 1," "Second draft, p. 3."

In a composition of any length, consider stopping every so often at a convenient point. Read over what you've written, making corrections or improvements; then type what you've done. Seeing your ideas in print will usually be reassuring. If you don't have a typewriter or word processor, copy the section neatly in longhand; the effect will be much the same. Turn back to the draft; work out the next section; stop again and type. The alternation between drafting and typing will relieve the strain of constant writing and give you a chance to pause and contemplate what you have accomplished and what you ought to do next.

But this is advice, not dogma. People vary enormously in their writing habits; what works for one fails for another. The best rule is to find a time and a place for writing that enable you to work productively and to follow a procedure you find congenial. You may like to draft in green or purple ink, to listen to music as you write, to compose the entire draft of a ten-page essay and then retype the whole thing instead of doing it section by section. Do what works for you.

As a brief sample, here is a draft of the beginning of the composition we've been discussing for the last several chapters—how young people in the 1990s feel about sex, love, and marriage.

I have some friends in their late twenties. They live in Chicago, where he is starting out as a lawyer and she as an accountant. Both are presently junior members of large firms, but they are ambitious and hope eventually either to track upward in their companies or to get out on their own. They live together; they say they are in love, and they seem to be. But they are surprisingly cool about it and about the prospect of marriage. "Well," Dee says, "I have my career and Jack has his. It's good we're together, but who knows where we'll be in two years or how we'll feel?" Their coolness surprises me. find it admirable and yet a bit repelling. admire their good sense. Still, I think to myself, should young love be so cool, so rational, so pragmatic? Is such good sense at so youthful an age perhaps purchased at too great a price? My friends are not, believe, unusual, not certainly among young, college-educated professionals. The lack of emotional intensity and commitment— about love, at least—seems the dominant tone of their generation. How is it different from the attitudes grew up with, the attitudes of the sixties? And why is it different? These are the questions want to consider.

A good deal of improvement can be made in that draft. First, though, it would help to say something about revision in general.

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