From First Draft to Finished Piece: How to Create Writing That Sings
A blockbusting tool for generating new writing, plus revision steps to make it shine
Recently, I wrote an essay about my experience going to hear well-known author Pam Houston give a reading and taking a workshop with her the next day.
I share Pam Houston’s unique process for generating new writing and then structuring finished books out of those raw materials. You can read it here.
Pam Houston on Writing and Creative Process
Tools to generate and structure new work, plus what upset me
This got me to thinking about my own generative process and how I go from generating new writing to creating a finished piece.
I rely on a host of different generative processes for creating new work, depending partly on the type of writing I am doing — poetry, essays or fiction — and partly on my desires and needs at the time. I like to have an ample toolkit to meet varying situations.
The best writing tool I know
But I do have a core method I return to over and over again. It’s the best tool I know.
This method is the essence of how I learned to write fluidly, from my heart and soul, and to uncover what I truly have to say.
The process has been so valuable to me that I teach it in all of my writing classes and I use nearly every week at some point in my own work.
That method is called freewriting.
Natalie Goldberg popularized this process in her ground-breaking book for writers, Writing Down the Bones. But, Goldberg did not discover freewriting.
This practice has been used by writers around the world across the centuries in various forms. In fact, I discovered stream of consciousness writing on my own as a teen, and it gave me a much-needed lifeline at the time, as well as the beginnings of discovering myself as a writer.
The basic guidelines
Goldberg’s great contribution was to codify the process of freewriting with a set of extremely helpful guidelines.
I won’t cover all of her guidelines here — I recommend buying her book, which is loaded with great tools and tips for writers.
But, here are the essential aspects of freewriting, which will give you all you need to know to give it a try:
1) Start with a prompt
You start with a prompt, which is a question, topic, starting phrase, idea or focus for the writing. Here are a few examples you can try:
· What I threw into the grave
· Write about the worst job you ever had
· Make a list of fears, then pick one and write
· “Henry left his last paycheck, signed, on the table and walked out the door into his new life.”
· Write about justice
· Write from the perspective of someone very different from yourself
2) Set a time or page limit
You decide before you begin how long you will write. It could be 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or 1 page, 2 pages, 3 pages, for instance.
3) Keep your hand moving
Don’t pause to think or edit or stare out the window. Keep your hand moving the entire time even if you have to write nonsense or write the same sentence over again until a new one comes.
It’s best to do this practice writing long-hand, rather than on a computer, if possible.
4) Don’t edit
Don’t edit on the page as you write. Just keep going. You can come back and make revisions later.
5) Grant yourself permission to write the worst junk in the world
This is the most essential step.
Each time you sit down to freewrite, you must grant yourself permission to write terribly. Make an agreement with yourself that you will not judge the work as you write. That hampers the flow.
It is very hard to learn to write well without giving yourself permission to write badly.
And, when you are in the midst of freewriting, you cannot have an accurate appraisal of the writing anyway. Your view is distorted. What seems terrible may actually have the seeds of greatness in it, and vice versa. I’ve seen both many times.
Benefits and pitfalls of freewriting
Freewriting has helped me to find and hone my voice, to learn about myself and my world, to discover my persistent subjects and what is on my mind and heart at any given time.
It helps writers of all kinds move quickly past writer’s block to discover the writing that is most authentic, alive and interesting. It also helps you be willing to take chances and discover new avenues in your writing.
Most of all, it helps me generate a great deal of new material with ease. I don’t use much of what I create this way. That’s part of the process. But in the rough are gems that can be worked with.
I do not use freewriting all the time as a generative process. For instance, I usually write essays directly on the computer.
Even in my poems, I don’t always use freewriting to generate a first draft, though I always write them long-hand first. I often stretch myself to write within various forms or to solve various challenges or simply to write more slowly, with care.
Freewriting has its pitfalls.
The main one is that it usually necessitates a great deal of editing. Freewriting can create a kind of sloppiness and endless wandering in the writing that has to be carefully gleaned. So you have to be ready and able to revise your writing or get help revising it.
What do I do with all that raw material?
This is where the work gets interesting.
First of all, when I freewrite, because I grant myself permission to write the worst junk in the world, I am also ready to discard much of what I generate.
I’m looking for the grains of wheat among the chaff. Many whole pieces I have written never see the light of day. The example I give my students is that professional photographers, using film, would look to get one or two good shots out of a roll of thirty-six photos.
My revision method involves letting the writing sit, usually for at least a week, often much longer, in order to gain distance from it. This is very helpful for editing.
Then, I read over what I have written in my notebook. (I use cheap spiral bound notebooks, so I can fill them up with impunity.)
I start to underline or mark passages that feel strong.
I put in parentheses anything I should consider cutting, often whole paragraphs and sections, as well as individual words and phrases. (I use parentheses, rather than crossing out, because I often change my mind about editing decisions, and want to have the chance to reconsider them.)
I cut anything extraneous or that is not strong, anything that slows the work down or isn’t needed, anything that messes with the rhythm and musicality of the piece or is too confusing or abstract or general when I can be more concrete and specific. I cut clichés, things we’ve heard or read before too many times.
I replace words and phrases with more vivid, accurate or interesting words, clearer, better and/or more specific images, more compelling metaphors, and write these in above the lines.
I may also write more, either to go in between sections or at the end, filling in what’s missing or needed in a piece. I’ll number these new sections to indicate where they go. I may even re-order the sections of a piece, putting numbers next to paragraphs or stanzas, so I know how to type it up.
In other words, I do as much editing as I can in the notebook first.
While things are still handwritten, we tend to be more flexible with editing them. Sometimes I will copy the whole thing over by hand in the new version and revise again.
Finding the form
I may let the piece sit again for a week or many, then come back and look at it once more, change some of my previous edits, add others. I dog-ear the page, so I can find it easily.
Many times I will decide on a first read that there isn’t enough worth keeping in a particular freewrite. In that case, I put an X at the top of the page, so that when I’m flipping through my notebooks, I can pass over that piece.
Often, I get excited by the possibilities in the piece in this process of editing and go immediately to my computer and start typing it up. As I type, I make more edits. This is another good reason to start the writing by hand.
Once I type it up, I put a checkmark on the top of the page in my notebook, so I know that one has been typed.
For me, typing up a piece is often when it begins to find its form on the page, especially if it is a poem, because I usually do not write in forms or even stanzas during freewriting.
So, as I type, I discover whether the poem wants to be, for example, in three-line stanzas (tercets) or a single stanza, what the length of the lines should be and where the line breaks go, whether to use indentation to create more white space, etc.
Or maybe I discover it isn’t a poem but the start of a story or personal essay.
This first attempt at finding the form isn’t final. The piece may later find a better form, as I continue to work on it.
Also, typing up a piece does not, for me, mean I will necessarily consider it good enough for human consumption in the end. I have revised pieces for months that I ultimately decide are not strong enough to publish. My computer is filled with poems I have never shown to others.
Nonetheless, the work of revising is never wasted work. I learn a great deal from each piece I work on, and that work and learning pays off in better writing later.
The poet Richard Hugo, author of the brilliant guide to writing, The Triggering Town, writes:
“You will find that you may rewrite and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second. If you just sit around waiting for the easy ones, nothing will come. Get to work.”
I wrote about this recently in my essay, Embracing Failure as a Necessary Step in Art.
Embracing Failure as a Necessary Step in Art * Brilliant Playground
For over a month now I have been working on a poem called "Tango Near the Edge," and in the end, it might not be any…
Next, I print out my typed-up piece.
I will wait again, a day or many, then make edits on the printed piece by hand. I will keep doing this over many weeks, months, even years.
We read much more carefully on the printed page than on a computer, so this is why it is so helpful to print out the piece you are working on and revise by hand.
I will also read the piece out loud and often have the computer read it to me too, so I can listen for any awkward, confusing or boring places, any thing that goes clunk.
At various points I will type my edits in and print them out again. I keep a stack of partially-finished pieces next to me where I write, so that I can keep re-reading and revising them.
If I have no new inspiration on any given day, I can always take up my stack and do some revision. Often this act of re-reading and revising my work, even just changing a word here or there, can rekindle my connection to my voice and get me writing again.
If, on the other hand, I’m on a roll with inspiration, I may have fresh insight as to how I can radically revise my partly-finished pieces to really make them sing.
But how do you know when to stop revising and call it done? I have written about that here.
To Authorize or To Abandon? How Do You Know When a Work of Art Is Done?
How do you know when your poem or novel, your painting, symphony or dance piece is finished and ready to be shared with…
Getting feedback from others
If I can, I will get feedback on the poem from one or more trusted sources. This is enormously helpful as it is impossible to see one’s own blind spots. Other writers or perceptive readers can offer valuable feedback that can greatly improve a piece.
But it is also important to remember that any one person’s opinion, no matter how esteemed they are, reflects their own aesthetic and sense of what works and does not in a poem (even if they try their best to support your aims and aesthetics).
So, I have to weigh each comment carefully over time and decide which comments to take and what to discard. I have to move past my initial knee-jerk reactions to the comments, my urge to defend myself or reject certain comments or too quickly comply with others, and consider if they truly seem to make the piece better according to my tastes.
I have written about how to get good feedback and navigate the feedback you get in these two essays:
How to Deal With Creative Advice & Become a Better Artist * Brilliant Playground
Creative advice for writers and artists abounds. Much of it is useful, helping us create stronger art. But it can also…
Putting it all together
If you are longing to write more or more freely or more authentically, I highly recommend freewriting.
If you are new to it, try doing a ten-minute freewrite every day for a month. Remember, don’t judge the work and be patient with it. You just might be astonished by what pours forth from you.
If you are longing to improve as a writer and create finished work you can share with others, use that raw material to practice and learn the subtle art of revision.
Take your time. Go through the steps. Find what works for you. Let the piece evolve slowly in stages. Don’t rush to share it with others too soon, unless they can give you valuable feedback.
And most of all, enjoy the process! You are creating. What better life is there?
Maxima Kahn writes and teaches about creativity and soulful living at BrilliantPlayground.com.