Finding the “Right” Way to Write

How to write a first draft

Finding the “Right” Way to Write

One reason I love doing my monthly How Writers Revise feature on this blog is the chance to get to speak to so many different authors about their writing, editing, and revision processes. And what I see, over and over, is how widely they vary.

Jess Montgomery (Sharon Short) writes what she calls a “clunky and murky” first draft, because “drafting is my least favorite part of the writing process.” Erin Flanagan grits out a “crap first draft” so she can then revise it into what she calls the “better draft” stage, then the final-draft polish.

Steven James pantses out his first drafts too, asking himself at every turn four specific questions that help him find the story as he goes—but he doesn’t move forward in writing each next scene until he’s painstakingly polished the preceding one.

Lisa Barr can spend years researching and plotting a story before she starts writing at what she calls “a grandmotherly pace” that results in a fairly complete and clean “first” draft that then just needs fine-tuning, a process echoed by the late Leila Meacham.

Laurie Frankel sees little division between writing and revising; she leaves herself “free to draft as messily as I will” by making dozens, sometimes hundreds of editing passes of her stories as she goes.

All these authors have achieved success by most writers’ standards: major publishing contracts and bestseller statuses, critical reviews and broad readership.

So which one of them is doing it “right”?

Learning the Right Way to Write

Writers tend to love learning writing: studying other authors’ work, reading hundreds of blog posts on craft, lining their bookshelves with craft books, signing up for workshops and courses and conferences and panels. (It’s one reason I have a job.)

With this craft we love so much, we want to learn how to do it right.

But what does “doing it right” actually mean when it comes to a creative, subjective pursuit like writing?

What does “doing it right” actually mean when it comes to a creative, subjective pursuit like writing?

Right now some authors are recovering from the monthlong frenzy of NaNoWriMo and feeling awfully good about having gotten words on the page, regardless of how sloppy that draft may be.

For them, breakneck first-drafting may help them break through the resistance of regular life’s time constraints or that nasty little critical voice that might ordinarily freeze them up if they didn’t just plow ahead with their creative impulse and “vomit it up” on the page, to borrow one of my favorite phrases from the marvelous If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland (one of the first books I ever read in my own quest to learn to write right).

Having a deadline and parameters motivates them to get those words on the page, because once they have something to work with, they know they can develop it into the story they envision.

But some authors may get frozen up by the relentless pressure to churn out words regardless of how sloppy. For them, it’s impossible to move forward in the story if they know that what they’ve already written isn’t complete or airtight. Everything that follows rests and builds on that foundation, and they could no more move forward on a broken or incomplete one than they’d try to construct a house that way.

Others, like me, may fall somewhere in between, shuddering at the thought of the kind of pressured, free-for-all writing of NaNo or the no-holds-barred “vomit draft,” but also prone to shutting down if the critical “editor brain” steps in too soon or too heavily as they’re finding the story in the drafting stage.

I combine both techniques, working to stay in my creative right brain and tap into the heart of what I really want to say, but also left-brain crafting it as I go, to some degree. I try not to get too hung up on polish in the drafting stage—if I’m stuck somewhere I may free-write something sloppy that I know I can come back and hone later, or just bookmark it with “XXX” so I don’t stop and get sidelined by my inner editor when I’m still drafting. But generally my writing is in fairly solid shape when I finish that first draft.

Which way is right: pantser or plotter? Vomit it up or edit as you go? Or something in between?

That’s up to you. Finding what works best for your writing is part of the process of developing as a writer.

Finding What’s Right for You

The writing process is not only different for each author, but it may vary with each project. When people ask me how long it takes me to write a novel (under my pen name, Phoebe Fox), I always joke, “Anywhere between nine months and fifteen years.”

Except it’s not really a joke, because it’s true—one of my books came together in under a year, vomited merrily onto the page; and my latest one aged in a barrel for a decade and a half, painstakingly crafted line by line, over and over and over, till it was ready.

Building a writing career isn’t just about learning craft. It’s about learning your craft. How do you work best? What does each story require? If you’re struggling or floundering, what do you need? To get out of that critical editor brain and just puke it up, damn the torpedoes, knowing you’ll fix it in post, as we used to say in the film biz?

Building a writing career isn’t just about learning craft. It’s about learning your craft.

Or have you stalled out because you got lost in a detour, wound up at a dead end, or didn’t know what trip you were taking in the first place? In that case, maybe you need to go back, slow down, carefully lay the groundwork for the trip turn by turn.

Learn voraciously, ceaselessly. Even after thirty years as an editor, and more as a writer, I suck up craft books and articles and classes like mother’s milk—not to learn which way is “right,” but to broaden my perspective and understanding, to gather tools to put in my toolbox that I can offer to writers in my editing and choose to wield as needed in my writing, and in the way that works best for me.

This is your creativity—the most subjective pursuit there is. Respect your unique creative process—and stay open and curious as to what it might be: at every stage of your writing career, with every project, even from day to day.

Over to you, authors: Have you developed a process of your own for your writing? What is it? How did you learn what worked best for you? Does it vary from story to story?

10 Comments. Leave new

  • Tiffany,
    I’m really enjoying your comments and insights. I’m a “new” author and am writing the last third of the fifth book in my cozy mystery series. I find myself gently revising as I go but have a developmental editor waiting to clean it up so I don’t worry too much about perfection at this stage. Any major revisions will come after she tackles my story and makes recommendations.
    I have your book on “Intuitive Editing” and have marked at least a dozen pages for re-reading. Good stuff!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 17, 2021 11:24 am

      Thanks so much for your comments, PJ–and welcome! Glad you’re here. It made me smile that you refer to yourself as a “new” author after five books. 🙂 Congrats!

      Reply
  • Valerie Harbolovic
    December 16, 2021 2:35 pm

    What were the 4 questions that Steven James asked as he wrote?

    Reply
  • Thank you for this. It’s validating.

    Since voice is terribly important to me in writing (I’m going to spend the next 300 or 4oo pages with that voice) I edit as I accumulate the first draft. I then put it aside for as long as I can stand to. Then I go back fix what I can and identify what I know needs fixing, but I don’t know how. When it’s more or less presentable as a draft, and I don’t know what to do next, I ask my writing group for feedback. I want to know their reactions first, as readers, second as fellow writers, as well as some things I’m going to ask them about if they don’t mention them. I usually get the answers to my questions as well as some stuff I would never have thought of. I consider everything they say, then take what I can use and leave the rest.
    Then the process begins again. I worked on my first MS for 16 years and have worked on my WIP for 3. I’ve never written anything I didn’t feel could be improved, so whether what I write is art of not, I embrace Leonardo da Vinci’s statement, “Art is not finished, it’s abandoned.”

    Thank you again for this stimulating post.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 17, 2021 11:36 am

      Thanks for sharing your process, Bob! Your persistence in working on your stories is admirable (and I always think it’s one of the prime ingredients for success in a writing career). It resonates with me that you take time away from the story between drafts–that helps so much with objectivity. And I love this so much: “I take what I can use and leave the rest.” That’s a great approach, in my book, for how to use critique and input. Learning what works for you and your story is such a key part of revising.

      Thanks for taking time to comment, and for your kind words about the post.

      Reply
  • Listening to many interviews with authors about their writing process helped me realize that there is no right way, only the way that works for you. After 9 manuscripts, I’ve finally discovered what works best for me, though I am expecting some things about the process will change with every book.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 17, 2021 11:38 am

      That sums it up so well, Cate–I think every author has to find her own system, and it can change from project to project. Figuring out what works for us is half the battle of finding our process.

      Always love seeing your name in the comments–hope you have a great holiday!

      Reply
  • I love this series. It’s so incredibly useful to learn how accomplished writers approach drafting and editing – and equally helpful to understand there are so many different ways to get the work done. When one way doesn’t work (or stops working) don’t panic – just try another! Thanks so much for these posts, Tiffany!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      December 17, 2021 11:40 am

      Thanks for your feedback, Rachel. I love doing this series–largely for the reasons you say, to pull back the curtain on what can be opaque processes, and show so many writers’ varied paths to career success. Plus I get to talk with so many great authors about their writing–I have a dream job! 🙂

      Appreciate you stopping by.

      Reply

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