Features: The first draft

Photo: Sam Hood/State Library of NSW
Photo: Sam Hood/State Library of NSW

Writing, says our mate Jack Hart, is like organised thinking. Organising your information is the first step towards imposing order on the writing process, thereby disciplining the mind.

You will first need to re-examine your theme statement – the single sentence that explains what your story is about (an example of how to write theme statements is here). Next look again at your story outline – it can be a list of bullet points if that works for you, or can have more detail, but don’t go overboard. If your theme statement and outline provide a kind of map for your story, the structure you’ll create to hold your words is like the terrain. It takes shape as you generate words to serve as its building blocks, and its form will emerge bit by bit as the most basic units combine to become more complex.

As we’ve noted before, most writing problems arise from the preceding phase of the process. Today you’re going to start your draft. If you’re having trouble, look back to see how you organised your material. If the material won’t assume a shape you can work with, rethink the way you gathered your information. If the information-gathering isn’t working, go back to your original idea.

Here are some of Hart’s techniques for avoiding problems at each stage of the process:

1. Prove it. Start with a hypothesis, not just an interesting topic. Then ask yourself what evidence you’ll need to make the theme credible. Use your answers to guide your research. Whom should you interview, or ask for facts and verification of information? What books and records do you need to read? Where do you have to go?

2. Plan it. Take some time to organise your information into logical order.

3. Structure it. Pause between the end of your research and the beginning of your writing. Review your notes, and think about key points you want to make, or things you want to include. Write these down as key words or short phrases and sort them into logical order. Use the resulting jot outline as a guide to your first draft, knowing you can change course once you start writing more deeply.

4. Write it. Stay loose through your first draft and write fast. You can try putting your notes aside while you write, leaving blanks where you can insert specific information later. Don’t pause! Keep moving from beginning to end no matter how rough, awkward or incomplete your writing seems.

5. Change hats. Once you’ve finished your draft, find your dark side. Be tough with yourself. Get rid of cliches and replace them with fresh figures of speech. Question every fact. Check every doubtful spelling. Make vague, weak, or unimaginative word choices more precise and vigorous. (Then relax.)

Adapted from A Writer’s Coach, by Jack Hart. pp.42-43

Before taking the next step:

A reader should be able to see the form of the entire story, complete with facts, quotes, anecdotes, and any description. From there we will be able to tell which holes, if any, need filling.

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