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4. Writing the First Draft

[The fourth in a series.]

At some point in our research for our book idea, we must decided that we have gathered enough (or, more likely, more than enough) to start writing. After all, wasn’t that the goal of our research in the first place?

That’s not easy for me. I get deep into the research about a topic I’ve come to love and I’m learning so many amazing things about it that I’ve become obsessed with researching. Each new bit of information sucks me into a host of other interesting things about the topic. I struggle to pull myself away to begin writing. It’s especially hard if, like me, you tend to read many of the sources listed in the bibliographies of your research material.

But let’s say that you succeed in breaking the chains that have bound you in the never-ending research and you’re ready to write. Now what?

The first thing you must decide is how you’ll write that first draft. Will you write it the old-fashioned way, in longhand on a legal pad, as I’m doing now? Or will you compose directly on your computer?

I’ve done it both ways, but longhand seems to work better for me for the simple reason that it seems to enable my thoughts to flow more freely. If my thoughts are organized and well ordered, they flow in a stream. It’s as though the ink in my Pilot Precise V5 extra-fine rolling ball writing instrument contains my thoughts, and they flow from my pen in a steady stream and onto the paper. (The only hindrance seems to be that, if I’m sitting outside in the infamous South Carolina humidity, the paper gets limp with moisture, and the ink tends to spread on the page!) My only goal is to get my initial thoughts and ideas down before I forget them!

If, on the other hand, you prefer to compose directly on your computer, then (as Brisco Darling would say), “More power to ye!” Just get those ideas down!

Remember that this is a first draft, not the final product. You shouldn’t be worried about how it looks, correctness of grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, mixed metaphors, or any other details at this point. (You do, however, want to ensure that you insert source citations–abbreviated, not a full bibliographic entry–for any quotes or statistics that should be credited. Believe me, they’re hard to find once you’ve typed a complete manuscript, and you run the risk of inadvertently committing the dreaded P offense: plagiarism!)

Just get those ideas onto paper. It’s not really a “stream of consciousness” type of writing because you’re not just shooting out random thoughts that occur to you; your thinking is informed by all the research you’ve done, and you’ve outlined how and in what order you want to present those thoughts. You’re just pouring them out onto paper, point by point, breaking it down into manageable parts. You want something to work with, and that something is your first draft. You can go back and take care of those details of correctness later when you type it (assuming you wrote in longhand) or in subsequent drafts. (If I write the first draft in longhand, the task of typing it includes what is essentially an initial edit for me.)

If I’m writing my first draft directly on my computer, however, I tend to focus attention on formatting, correct spelling and punctuation, etc. I find myself checking to see whether the auto-correct feature has assumed that I mean a different word than I’ve typed and changed it without asking my permission. (That’s happened enough to make me leery.) Also, having learned to type pounding on a manual machine, and tending to type faster and faster when I get “on a roll,” I find myself looking up at the screen to ensure that I haven’t failed to space between words. (I’m especially bad about hitting the space bar one keystroke too late and producing such constructions as “andt he” and inserting numb3rs into words. For some odd reason, the auto-correct doesn’t correct those mistakes!) Or I’m constantly looking at the word count in the lower left corner to ensure that I’m staying within any word-count limits. Hence, longhand for me!

The goal of that first draft is simply to get your message onto paper, ensuring that you address all your main points. Once you’ve achieved that goal, and only then, you can take the next step: going back to correct what’s wrong (spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, etc.), insert additional points or supporting information, getting the phraseology just right, etc.

But that’s the topic of our next installment. Come back for the next post to learn more. But first, here’s your homework.

Your assignment: Start writing that first draft. If you’re writing a book, you won’t be finished by the time the next installment is posted, but get started anyway!

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