When you sit down to write, the words flow effortlessly, and the draft you produce is perfect. Every thought is crisp, every word is necessary, every comma appears right where it belongs. Your fingers never reach for the backspace or delete key, and you couldn’t cause a typo if you tried.
This fantasy of effortless writing is appealing. But like other things that matter, an effective piece of writing takes a lot of work. Why, then, do so many of us hold fast to the notion that a single draft is possible? We write a sentence or two, or a paragraph, or maybe even an entire section. Then we stop to perfect what we’ve just written. Inching our way to the distant final sentence of the last paragraph—is that an oasis or a mirage?—we’ve traveled as far from the dream of effortless writing as it’s possible to get.
This painstaking procedure comes at a high price. For one thing, it takes more time than most of us can spare, particularly when we face a deadline. Selecting the right words, fashioning them into shapely sentences, and gathering them into well-developed paragraphs is an exacting task, requiring patience and deliberation. Trying to draft, revise, edit, and proofread all at once makes a demanding task harder still.
Worse, the effort wastes the time it takes. We slow ourselves down every time we interrupt the creative work of drafting to take up the critical work of revising and editing. When we finally reach the end, we may see that Section 3, say, really doesn’t contribute much to our analysis or argument. The document would be stronger if we let it go. But because we spent so much time polishing it, we’re no more likely to abandon it than we are to sacrifice our firstborn. Instead, we hope that our readers will think, Gee, Section 3 has nothing to do with anything, but it was so well written that I didn’t mind reading it. The existence of this forgiving reader is a fantasy, too.
If you want to avoid the wasted time and effort of the polish-as-you-go approach, then rediscover the rough draft. Treat the first draft as the provisional thing it is meant to be. Allow yourself to write it from start to finish, roughing out the points in your outline without stopping to worry about a half-formed idea, an approximate word, or an uncertain bit of punctuation. Your sole aim is to get your ideas out of your brain and onto the screen as fast as you can.
Following an outline can keep your draft on track, of course, making a tangent less tempting or preventing a fall down a rabbit hole. But don’t banish a good idea or strangle an insight simply because you hadn’t thought of it when you made your outline. Write down the new idea. See where the insight takes you. When you revise the draft, you’ll have plenty of time to figure out what to do with this unexpected material. It may fit in nicely between two earlier paragraphs, or it may be so good that you’ll want to start over, reconceiving your original plan in light of it. This step is far easier to take when all you have is a rough draft that you dashed out, rather than a polished draft you can’t bear to disturb.
In this way, writing a rough draft makes us efficient writers. We can complete the draft of an entire document in a small fraction of the time a polish-as-you-go draft takes. There it is on the screen, in all its glorious potential, inviting us to make something better of it. All the time we’re no longer wasting by polishing the draft bit by tiny bit is time we can now devote to revising and editing a complete draft.
The rough draft also makes us fearless writers. At the beginning of a project, we’re less likely to experience the dread that polish-as-you-go writers often feel, because producing the first draft is no big deal. We’re not undertaking a long, laborious struggle to wrest perfection from reluctant material. Instead, we’re taking a step in an evolutionary process, in which the polished draft we intend for our readers emerges from the rough draft we make for ourselves.
Because writing that matters to ourselves and our readers is hard to produce, we’ll likely continue to imagine how great it would be if our ideas effortlessly found the right words and arranged themselves perfectly on the screen. Meanwhile, we can more easily make the necessary effort by engaging, at least in the first draft, in some necessary roughness.
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