You Dont Have To Get It Right The First Time

As you sit down to begin a new story, you're likely to feel unsure of yourself. There is so much about these characters and this situation that you don't yet know. Even if you did know all about them, how can you get it all down on paper so that it reads well?

Not to worry: You don't have to get it right the first time. You can take advantage of a wonderful invention called the second draft.

One thing that intimidates new writers is the infernal internal editor—that dastardly creature that sits on your shoulder and keeps up a constant nattering: "That's atrocious. You spelled that word wrong. Why did you say it that way? You don't know enough to write about that. Everything you're writing is mush."

Hard as it may be, refuse to listen to this little monster, especially while you're writing the first draft. Later on your internal editor can be your friend, provided you keep it on a strong leash. But while the first draft is under way it is your enemy. It derives its greatest satisfaction from preventing you from writing your story.

The trick is to ignore its nagging and whining and plunge on. Give yourself permission to be a terrible writer until you've completed the entire first draft. If you surrender to the beastie's urg-ings and keep rewriting page one until it's perfect, you'll end up with a fat drawerful of beautiful page ones, but very few stories.

I recommend writing at least three drafts of your story, each draft being a version of the whole story, from beginning to end:

• Draft one: What to say. The purpose of the first draft is to let you discover the story. As you write it, you become acquainted with the characters, sort out the events, figure out what is meaningful and what is not. Just let the story pour out. Don't worry about spelling or punctuation or pretty phrasing or whether you've got something right. Sure, the quality of the writing will be embarrassing and awful, but that's fine. No one but you will ever see it. As you go along you may realize that you need to hint that Aunt Clara is afraid of heights back when you introduce her on page two, in order to lay the groundwork for the scene on the cliff that begins on page twelve. Fine. Jot a reminder to yourself on page two and deal with it when you rewrite.

• Draft two: How to say it. This is when your internal editor can turn from foe to friend, from demon to angel—as long as you keep straight in your mind that you're the one in charge. Your editor can give you the judgment to figure out what works in the story and what needs attention, to discover a better way to describe a character or express an idea. Now is the time to insert a mention of Aunt Clara's acrophobia, to decide that Dave and Lynne's argument should take place in the kitchen instead of the cocktail lounge, to take out the wonderful scene with the yellow cat because, even though it's the best thing you've ever written, a cat doesn't belong in this story. In this draft you smooth out clunky language, adjust the pace of the scenes, and make sure you have achieved your intended mood, rhythm, and tone. Here you make sure the loose ends are tied up and that each element—character, conflict, plot, setting, and voice— contributes to the cohesiveness of the story as a whole.

• Draft three: Cut and polish. In this go-round, you make sure that every word pulls its weight, that any flab is trimmed out, that your prose flows smoothly, that your spelling and grammar are impeccable.

Three is not a magic number. Each "draft" might be a series of drafts, entailing more than one trip through the manuscript. You could rework a certain scene several times before it's the way you want it to be. I once read that Ernest Hemingway rewrote the last chapter of A Farewell to Arms 119 times, although I can't imagine that he actually kept count.

Remember, though, that no story will ever be perfect. There is a time to declare the story finished and let it go. Ignore that little voice that keeps telling you, "It's not good enough yet. It still has flaws. Someone might criticize it. Don't let anyone see it. Work on it some more." It's your infernal internal editor again, back in enemy mode and trying to thwart you. Don't let it win.

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