Drafting and editing

The process of drafting and editing is one that I’m more confident about than other steps in the writing process. I don’t have any doubts that if I have ideas then I can get them down and put them into a presentable (though rarely beautiful) shape. In terms of thinking about the multiplicative pipeline model, the biggest challenges for me are the effort and morale issues involved in producing writing. This is what I know about reliably making that process easier, but there’s still a large cost here. If I could reduce that cost further then I reckon it would increase the amount of written work that I could produce.

The process that I follow looks like this:

  1. Blurt out ideas onto the page
  2. Structure the ideas into a coherent sequence
  3. Iterate on identifying problems, choosing solutions, and implementing those solutions

I’ve written a little about babbling, which is how I blurt out ideas, in the previous post on generating ideas. I will just write and write with no effort at making it good at all. This step is more like speaking than writing. There’s no way to un-say what’s been said, and similarly I don’t erase or rewrite anything at this stage. If I write something that, on reflection, I think is mistaken, I’ll just add something like, “actually, no, I think that’s wrong because…”.

The aim at this stage is just to generate a large number of ideas which could go into the piece. This isn’t a draft, exactly. I’m not really thinking about it as an early version of the writing. It’s just a pile of raw material to work with. If I can actually use any sentences from it in their original form that’s just a bonus.

Some people recommend outlining or mindmapping first, and perhaps that works well for them, but I find it easier to start with continuous prose rather than with bullet points. It seems to generate a richer set of ideas to work from. Yes, the bullet points seem more efficient, but for me, perhaps because they don’t need fleshing out, I don’t really know how much I know about them. They might just be ideas that I picked up from elsewhere without really understanding them, which will be a problem when I come to write about them. Whereas if I’m just writing continuously, I can see how much I actually know to a greater degree. And each idea triggers the next much more easily when I’m thinking in sentences. Bullet points feel too sterile. Perhaps the fact that prose feels like explanation makes it easier for me to notice gaps in the explanation and try to fill them. And you don’t know when you’re about to produce a good idea. Something that you just blurt out as an aside can actually turn out to be an important point, but you won’t know that before you write it.

Once I’ve blurted out a lot of material, I will have a mess of ideas in exceedingly badly written prose form, and in whatever random order the ideas came out it. So then I want to structure it. Sometimes I’ll just chop up the paragraphs and rearrange them. Sometimes I want to see more of an overview so I’ll read through the text and pick out ideas as bullet points which I can then re-arrange more easily, and then arrange the text to conform to that structure. What I’ll end up with then is very badly written prose, but at least the rough order of it will be what I want. This is the point at which I’d say that I have a first draft.

Then I start editing for real. This is an iterative process of identifying problems, choosing solutions, and implementing those solutions. I’m somewhat careful to separate out the steps of the process, so when I’m identifying problem I’m writing them in a list. And then when I pick solutions I produce a new todo list. And I try to implement those solutions one-by-one and check them off in the todo list as I go.

Initially when I start the editing process, the problems that I’m identifying will be big things, e.g. that I’m missing an introduction. In subsequent iterations, though, I will be finding smaller and smaller problems until it’s down to the level of identifying individual sentences that I’d like to rewrite.

Separating work into these different stages and keeping a clear distinction between them is easier said than done. The temptation is to make changes as soon as I see a problem, and it takes a lot of discipline to just identify the problem, write it in a list, and then continue reading. That’s a good argument for printing out the draft and reading through it on paper, because you can’t actually make the edits there.

In practice I’m only somewhat disciplined about keeping the distinction between identifying a problem and choosing a solution. It’s still valuable, I think, to keep in mind that at least conceptually they are separate things. There are usually multiple ways of solving a problem, and it can be good to leave the options open initially.

The biggest problem of editing for me is getting stuck in editing hell, where I’m just making little changes at random, with no sense of whether I’m making progress. On a large text it’s important to be able to see progress for the sake of keeping up morale. So anything I can do to create a sense of progress is very helpful, and there’s nothing like seeing a bunch of checked off todo list items to give a sense of progress.

When I was working on a larger writing project I even went through and made size estimates on the todo list items, just using a small/medium/large classification. And I learnt that I could reliably get through two small tasks, one medium task, or break down a large task into smaller components in a 30 minute work cycle.

One of the benefits of separating these stages rather than making edits as you go is that you might decide to cut a whole section. I’ve gone through paragraphs and thought “this sentence is bad, this next sentence is also bad”, and then eventually realised that actually the whole paragraph is unnecessary anyway. It’s much more efficient to cut it out before spending the time rewriting the individual sentences within it.

My final tip is to have a place to put offcuts: I keep a separate section with the heading “Offcuts” at the bottom of the document, so that if I remove a paragraph from the text I can just put it there for later use. That means that I’m not deleting the work, which massively reduces the psychological resistance. I could always retrieve it later if I wanted to. (Of course, I never want to.)

My feeling about this drafting and editing process is that it’s solid and reliable enough that I can just apply it if I have something I want to put into writing. The faster it can be done, the more of it I can do and the less the resistance to putting something into writing. I don’t have to worry about it preventing me from producing writing in the way that I do about some of the earlier steps, but there’s still a lot of potential value from getting faster at this process.