Editing Principle 19: Garbage First Drafts

It always helps to understand that producing a book entails a lot of waste—sentences and paragraphs that never see the light of day, are never shown to the public, pages of text that seem great while you’re composing them but then days or weeks later, you re-read them and think, “Oh my Lord, I’m an idiot.”

A client once asked me: Can’t you skip this step? Once a person gets better at writing, can’t they jump straight to the stage wherein they only write material that’s worth preserving?

No. Not really.

The best analogy I can think of to explain why not is to imagine that your head is a long, cluttered hallway. You know you need to open the door at the end of it, but before you can do so, you need to kick a lot of boxes and other random junk out of the way. This clutter is all the material that doesn’t make it past your editing rounds. The good stuff is behind the door. That’s where you’ll find your more original insights.

So that raises the question of what this clutter consists of, or rather, what it’s doing there in the first place. Why are our heads organized such that our better ideas can only be accessed after we’ve churned through and spat out our dumber ones?

I’ve no idea, but I suspect that the act of writing down these first thoughts that we encounter in our head helps show us how inadequate they are to our true(r) meaning, and so we keep writing until we nail it—it being the good stuff, the things we wanted to say all along. As Calvin Trillin notes here, it’s a sort of inventory-taking by which we assess what we have to work with.

So all this to say, many authors who are not professional writers get frustrated because they anticipated a process that looked something like this: Fill up the blank page. Revise. Maybe polish some rougher sentences. Done!

In truth many professional writers experience something more like this: Fill the page. Add more. Add stuff that you're not sure belongs but you’re pretty sure is brilliant. Let it rest for a few days. Revise. Realize that a thing you've explained over three paragraphs can be crystallized in a sentence. Re-revise. Create an "outtakes" document in which you paste lines and anecdotes that don't survive your revision. Get annoyed over how large this file is getting. Tighten your sentences. Wait a day. Tighten more. Finally get the feeling that you’re onto something.

PS. I love this line of Lewis Mumford’s, in which he notes how long it takes to arrive at the metaphorical door, even to sound like himself, in a note to his then-boss Harold Ross:

“I did tear up those three thousand words: one has to do that every once in a while just as a moral exercise, to keep oneself in trim for cutting out a whole chapter. But there are a few pages, prompted by your gentle insistence, which I’ve just done tonight. If I had any notion that you’d want to print it, I’d remind you that it is only a first draft, and unfortunately the characteristic Mumford style doesn’t begin to emerge until I have sweated over the third draft. But I’ve done this rather to convince you of my hopelessness of doing anything: so you have my permission to put it in your waste-basket after you’ve glanced through it.”

From Sidewalk Critic: Lewis Mumford’s Writings on New York. Edited by Robert Mojtowicz. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000, p. 17

Megan Hustad