Be kind to your first draft

You’ve heard the truism over and over, in different forms.

Writing is rewriting. Revision is where the real writing begins. Most famous, perhaps, are the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis: “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

Far be it for a layman like me to argue with a legendary jurist. Instead, I’ll turn the topic over to the late, great crime novelist Evan Hunter (right)—author of The Blackboard Jungle and, writing as Ed McBain, the “87th Precinct” series of police procedurals. This is what he told readers of The Writer a decade ago:

“The only true creative aspect of writing is the first draft. That’s when it’s coming straight from your head and your heart, a direct tapping of the unconscious. The rest is donkey work. It is, however, donkey work that must be done. Whether you rewrite as you go along. . .or whether you rewrite everything only after you’ve completed the book, you must rewrite.”

Now here is Hunter’s kicker:

“But be careful. You can hone and polish something until it glows like a diamond, but you may end up with something hard and glittering and totally without the interior spark that was the result of your first commitment to paper.”

So this is also true: you should not dismiss or discard your first draft. Hunter was not alone in believing so.

In a presentation at the Library a few years ago, Karen Sirabian, the director of the Manhattanville College Master of Arts in Writing program and a founder of the Manhattanville literary journal Inkwell, told us that when we finish a first draft, we should put it away. Revise on a different document.


“The first draft is sacred,” she said. “There is energy there that cannot be duplicated.”

With apologies to the late, great Mr. Justice Brandeis, there might be some great writing there, too.—Alex McNab

Published in: on February 9, 2012 at 11:10 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Where to stop rewriting is always an interesting judgement call, isn’t it?

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