After a recent one-on-one writing consultation, a student sent me a thoughtful reflection on what she had learned: ‘to acknowledge my writing style and learn how and where I can use my strength while I keep improving what I have’. I’m always glad when a writer leaves with a clear sense of their own strengths as well as areas for further development. As I thought about this further, I began to wonder about this tension: We all want to become better writers, but we can only be the writers that we are. The relationship between these two ideas is at the heart of the writing challenge. We all need to figure out how we can work within our own constraints while still finding pathways to improvement.
The student who sent me the above note, for instance, was a very detailed writer. Within the first paragraph, she had drilled down to a level of detail that was clearly premature. After agreeing that this tendency might be overwhelming for her reader, we talked about the benefits of having written this fine-grained material. I suggested that she create a series of topical headings that would allow her to ‘tag’ each of these sentences. Doing so would allow her to easily move this material out of her introduction, where it was obscuring the big picture. Moving these passages could give her a head start on constructing later sections, where the detail would be helpful. She had written things that weren’t serving the needs of the reader where they were, but that didn’t make it pointless to have written them. In the future, she will be able to recognize this tendency in her own writing and to use this strategy to build on her own strengths.
We all have particular tendencies when we sit down to write a first draft. For many writers, it’s more helpful to find ways to make those tendencies beneficial than to try to alter them. In my experience, how people write seems to be somewhat fixed; how they revise seems to be where much of the growth occurs.
If you look at early drafts of your own writing, what patterns do you typically find? Needless to say, self-diagnosis is far from a simple process; if you have institutional writing support, that feedback can be super helpful for building your understanding of your own writing tendencies. Identifying those tendencies makes finding a corresponding revision strategy easier. I’ve already talked about the student with the habit of providing too much detail too early. (You can find more on how this tendency manifest itself in thesis writing in this post on structuring thesis introductions.) Here are some other common tendencies that I see:
- Branching out sideways: Instead of moving in a strictly linear manner, some early drafts branch out in multiple directions. If this happens in your writing, can you highlight the branching point? Once you’ve identified that point, you can decide if you want to follow that branch (adjusting earlier text as needed) or tag-and-move that material somewhere else. Those digressive moments can help you to clarify the optimal direction for your text, but the ability to do so starts with pinpointing the exact moment that you change direction.
- Over-relying on the literature: Instead of focusing on the author’s own contribution, some early drafts move too quickly to detailed discussions of the scholarly literature. Doing so can inhibit the reader’s ability to see your work unfold. Try highlighting your use of sources in an early draft, possibly using different colours for different species of reference (e.g., a textual reference, a single-text citation, a multiple-text citation). Once your sources standout in this manner, you can choose the ones that are helpful (adapting their form as needed) and tag-and-move the others.
- Building schemes: Instead of allowing an organic structure to emerge, some early drafts get caught up in building organizational schemes. If that scheme is inapt, it can then get in the way of finding a better one. Have a look in your drafts for places that you signal structure (this question has three dimensions; this insight leads to a dichotomy between … ; this issue should be examined in such-and-such a way). Once those structure markers are visible to you, you can decide if the framing seems helpful or if it’s getting in your way.
Do any of those tendencies seem familiar to you? Whatever you found, chances are you weren’t thrilled with your own early drafts. Dealing with the persistence of terrible first drafts can be made easier by remembering that the goal of the first draft is not meeting the needs of the reader; the goal of the first draft is laying the groundwork for eventually writing a final draft that will meet the needs of the reader. Your first drafts aren’t uniquely terrible–everyone writes terrible first drafts–but they may be terrible in ways that are unique to you. Becoming aware of those tendencies means that you may be able to find ways to improve your writing within your own writing practice. This drive for self-awareness can lead you to deepen your understanding of how you write first drafts and to develop strategies that work specifically with your own writerly inclinations. Thriving as a writer ultimately comes from learning to write as yourself, as the writer you are rather than the writer you wish you were.