My friend, writer Cindy Zelman, recently asked me to read an early draft of a new essay. Cindy and I exchange new work occasionally to help us each push past those points where we feel stuck with a draft. It helps to gain the perspective of an objective, keen, and supportive reader who shares your general writing sensibilities. That person can offer advice about what is working – and what might not be – in your draft. Cindy and I are very different writers, but we find that the things that we notice when we read each other’s work helps us kick our drafts up to the next level.
In reading Cindy’s recent essay, I picked up on something that happens to so many of us when we are working on early drafts of our work. We start out with an idea of what we want to write about, but new ideas fall onto the page as we work on the draft. We add scenes or characters that we didn’t necessarily plan to include at first, and we segue into other topics that sometimes lead us off track. Or maybe we are not heading “off track” at all. We might be finding something more compelling that we really want to write about. We might decide, through the drafting process, that our original intention is no longer as interesting as a new direction we now want to pursue.
That’s all a part of early drafting. The drafting process for many writers is about having ideas, exploring those ideas, and throwing a variety of things down onto the page to see where your mind and your writing might lead.
But once you’ve finished that first messy draft you might sit back, re-read it, and ask, “Now what do I have? What do I really want to say with all of this? And in order to say it well, what has to stay and what has to go?”
Cindy was at this place with her essay. She had arrived at what she wanted to write about, and she had some wonderful characters and scenes to help her get there. But she also, we mutually agreed, had some elements in her early draft that she might now be able to let go. There also were some places where she might want to go deeper to make her point. And all of that would happen before she started to worry too much about line editing on the language level. (For both Cindy and me, that tends to come later in the game).
So I suggested that Cindy try an exercise that was assigned to me by Laban Carrick Hill, one of my teachers at the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing, when I was working on my critical thesis. After I had completed one or two drafts of the thesis, Laban asked me to answer these three questions:
What is this thesis about in one word?
What is this thesis about in one sentence?
What is this thesis about in one paragraph?
After really pin-pointing what a piece of writing is about (whether critical or creative) you can begin to move outward from that important information to organize and carefully target each section, paragraph, and sentence of the piece so that it leads to the ending you want. Maybe you started out writing about the color of the sky as a metaphor for world peace, as an off-the-cuff and perhaps silly example, and ended up deciding to write about an association you have between the color blue and personal safety because of a blanket you carried around as a child. Now that the topic of your piece has changed, you might want to cut out the lengthy paragraphs about clouds or air travel that you had in your original draft. In other words, you can cut away the stuff that doesn’t lead to your new destination. If that original draft talked a lot about clouds and only had one sentence about that blue blanket, but that one sentence really hit you and made you want to change the whole focus of your essay, you’ll likely want to add in a lot more about that blanket. Maybe you’ll include a better description of the blanket or add scenes that revolve around it. And since you’re now writing about personal safety and not about world peace, you can leave out the paragraph you had in your original draft about your time spent volunteering for Amnesty International. Or did that volunteering stint actually have something to do with your own quest for personal safety? Hmm. This is where your thinking, imagination, and creativity come in. Maybe. If so, figure it out and make it work.
I made up all of that about the color blue and the sky and a blanket this minute, but I think it should help you get the idea. If in one word your essay is now about “safety” and not about “peace,” this is going to change what you do with the next draft of your essay. And you’ll know better what to do if you expand that one word first into a sentence and then into a paragraph so that you can get a more complete (yet still focused) idea of what you want to say.
Try the exercise — it works. Cindy said she’s going to try it, and I am already looking forward to the next draft of her piece. I know it is going to be another Zelman classic.