Monday, September 24, 2012

Setting Yourself Free: Avoiding First Draft Perfectionism

By: Helen Ryan

I know I am all-too frequently guilty of the following writing transgression: trying to craft a perfect paper in my first draft.  Whether it's because I've gotten overconfident in my abilities and think “I’m awesome, I don’t need more than one swipe through this assignment for it to be great,” or because I don’t want to have to do more than cursory editing, I end up stuck in the following position: trying to write a perfect polished piece in my first draft.

A word to the wise: DON’T do this.

Obviously it’s absolutely imperative to go through written pieces to check for wordiness, run-on sentences, or any of the other writing woes that can befall even the best of writers, but for all you writers who already diligently go through the draft-edit-revise process, I have another suggestion: let yourself run free with your first draft.

The fact of the matter is, if you try to write a mostly-finished paper as your first draft, you’ll miss tons of wonderful ideas, turns of phrase, and other gems of language while you’re being overly concerned with page limits, not letting your paragraphs go too long, or other restrictions.  Trying to write too perfectly too soon means you’re prematurely editing and cutting yourself off.

From personal experience, I have a story applicable to this idea from as recently as this weekend.  I was working on two application essays for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship grant, and the page limit is insanely short: a single page each.  These essays are meant to prove my competency and interest in teaching English abroad, and I am faced with the staggering task of trying to smash all my ideas, interests, and enthusiasm into such confines.  The task is, in short, quite nearly impossible.

I spoke to one of my professors about the difficulties I was facing with the restrictions, and his advice was  wonderfully simple: just let yourself write, worry about fitting the length requirement later.  Try to stay within the limits from step one, and you’re going to miss tons of great ideas and end up hemming yourself in as you go.  So I wrote freely on the essays, went way over the limit, and am now in the editing process, but you know what?  Editing now from my large pool of writing is far easier than trying to stay within a single page as I was writing.

This basic advice can benefit all writers, whether their assignment is two frustratingly short single-paged essays, or a thesis project that spans tens (or even hundreds) of pages.  By really letting your thoughts and words flow in a first draft, even if you have to trim half of them out later, you’ll have a much better idea of what you really want to say, how to say it, and what you want the strong points of your writing to be.

So, a message to all the first-draft writers of the world: let yourself write free.

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