Tag Archives: writing

Crummy First Drafts

writing on paperThe problem with settling on a first pass of a statement is that it reflects the likely truth that we have yet to discover what we know or believe.

There are times when the right medium for addressing another is the written word.  An extended statement provides space to dwell on necessary complexities, make a case with sufficient amplification and evidence, and possibly guide readers towards an action they have been reluctant to take. Good writing is coherent, interesting, and expansive. Whether we’re working on an essay, report or letter; we know when we need to make the most of ideas laid down on the page or its electronic equivalents. This is a ritual for high school students working on the perfect essay to a selective college, the office worker on deadline to finish a report that will be seen by peers and management, or the citizen making a case to reluctant officials or neighbors.

In her funny  and useful book for writers, Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott declares unequivocally that every writer needs to get past the “shitty first draft.”  It’s her not-so-gentle way to remind budding scribes to take at least several more passes over the prose they  are usually too ready to accept as sufficiently worked out.

Part of the problem with settling on a first draft of any extended statement is that it reflects the likely fact that we aren’t yet clear about what we know or believe. Clarity comes when the theme of a piece begins to reveal itself, sometimes late in the process.

Whitman-pasted-notes-for a poem LOC
Notes of Walt Whitman for a Portion of Leaves of Grass           Library of Congress

Occasionally the last summarizing statement of an essay is the very first thing that should be said.  But we don’t know that until we’ve finished the chain of thought that gets us there. This is because we often think inductively from cases to conclusions.  But ideas on the page need a reverse process of deduction.  Major claims usually should come first.  And there’s the rub; we first have to discover them, lest we do the equivalent of showing up at a great party just as it’s winding down.

I suspect I’m not the only one to notice that after a day or so, my first drafts look dead on arrival. They are usually confusing, wordy, and both over-written and underdeveloped.  Having discovered what I really think, successive drafts will refine the process.  With time it usually becomes clear that the points I wanted to make can be said with far greater economy and clarity.

A writer also discovers that the act of revising is enough to set the mind off on its own extended tour of the landscape that is being surveyed. This is a curious phenomenon. It turns out that not all writing happens when a person is formally on task. Better ways to make points force their way into our consciousness when we move on to other things like walking or trying to sleep. The left hemisphere of the brain thinks in language, and it’s sometimes only too happy to stay on the case longer than the rest of our mind.

We can also be eternally grateful that word processing makes edits so easy.  A few writers like to work out ideas in longhand, often on a legal pad.  But most have found the advantages of word processing programs that make changes easily, with the added usefulness of spell checkers and a built-in thesaurus. The latter tool can help find not just another word for a feeling or idea, but possibly the best word.  Mark Twain famously remarked that “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I think I have only known one person who wrote and spoke in more or less “finished” prose. This historian was a phenomenon to listen to: a good scholar, amazingly fluent and a gifted lecturer.  It was a relief when he has moved to another state.

Perhaps these modest blog posts look like they are dashed off as more or less complete pieces.  If it were only so.  Most take several weeks to develop, going through a dozen or more alterations. The process expands exponentially for a book.  Many authors I know take months–and sometimes years–to refine and polish a manuscript.  When it’s done well the finished work of a good writer scans so easily.  And that’s the irony of graceful prose.  It’s like sculpture.  Revision helps it take on a naturalness and clarity that makes it easy to ignore the unnecessary bits that have been carved away.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu


In Praise of the Linear Mind

Sherlock Holmes      wikimedia.org

This is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover and understand what a fragmented thinker may never find.

By definition, a distraction is a detour. It happens when the continuity of some effort is broken by the need to shift attention elsewhere. Since this website is dedicated to communicating in “the age of distraction”—be it advertising clutter, too many texts and e-mails, or the frenetic pace of overscheduled lives—we should have an interest in persons who resist all the cultural noise.

One answer to this problem is to discipline ourselves to follow a more linear pathway, even though cultivating this kind of thinking cuts against the grain of the culture.   And it’s not easy to tell the world to take a hike while we muse alone in our own self-made bubble.

Linear thinkers take many forms:  avid readers content to devote large chunks of time to a single work of fiction or non-fiction, artists happily left alone to work through decisions that will end up on canvass or as musical notation.  And of course we’ve enshrined the image of the “mad scientist” as a loner following the threads of their research with long hours in the lab, leaving family and friends to fend on their own.

George Frederick Handel wrote the great oratorio Messiah in spurt of nearly unbroken concentration, finishing in just over three weeks.  And imagine the sustained effort required by William Lamb’s architectural firm, who designed and prepared drawings for New York City’s Empire State Building in an incredibly short two weeks. The iconic skyscraper was completed in just over a year.  Such dedication to a single task can be scaled down to what many writers sense when they notice the time that vanishes when they are absorbed in their work.

The linear thinker looks forward to clearing the decks sufficiently to be able to see an unobstructed view of the horizon. Undisturbed concentration gives them power. This is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover and understand what a fragmented thinker may never find. Unbroken attention to a task allows a first effort to build on the synergies that begin when scattered thinking  begins to see connections and consequences that others may miss.

This is more or less the reverse of the kind of segmentation of effort that is now embedded in our work and so much of our media. A reader’s time on a single web page is usually under a minute.  And we are getting cues from all over that we’re not noticing our preference for hyper-compression. Consider, for example, the New York Times reporter who recently noted in passing that an individual “argued” a point “on Twitter.”  Really?  Can a person “argue” in the traditional sense of the term—which includes asserting a claim and it’s good reasons—in a verbal closet of 140 characters?  Twitter imposes absurd limitations on the expression of  thoughts, matched by political ads that “argue” public policy in 30-seconds, television news “sound bites” from policy-makers that average around eight seconds, and the de-facto editing style of commercial television that cuts individual shots into lengths of two or three seconds.

We now think of a Ted Talk with a maximum running length of 18 minutes as an “in depth” discursive form. No wonder some of my students think of a 70-minute lecture or a 40- page chapter as the functional equivalent of a long slog across a vast desert.

Interestingly, one of the features  sometimes seen in a person at the higher end of the autism spectrum scale is a consuming and total passion for one thing. Subjects with Asperger’s are especially known for their laser-focused interests, making them a challenging fit in a culture that rewards frequent pivots to completely different activities. Psychological historians believe we can thank mild forms of autism for the achievements of Mozart, Beethoven, Charles Darwin, and Lewis Carroll.  And it’s surely Aspergers that seems the dominant psychological trait of the world’s favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.

Given the misplaced importance of multi-tasking across the culture, it makes sense that there is building interest in novel ideas like the self-driving car. Negotiating a ribbon of open road is a linear process that seems increasingly beyond the capacities of distracted drivers. It’s probably better to let a computer take care of a task many are less equipped to manage themselves.

If we think we have identified a significant problem here, we probably should be more humble and note that these few words on the attributes of linearity are maybe more useful in illustrating non-linear thinking. The concept deserves a book more than a blog.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

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