The Year that Made Me a Drafter

  • SumoMe

I was that student that didn’t bother with drafts. I just wrote the final paper.

I’m a thinker, and structure my writing as I go about my day. During school, I structured as I did research. I moved parts around in my head, setting up the best arguments, supporting evidence or observations, discarding what is irrelevant or unhelpful. If it was still an interesting nugget, I’d file it away for future reference. By the time I sat down to write a paper, it was an act of transcribing. I completed writing research papers in about three hours, took a break to do something else, maybe gave it to a classmate or roommate for a fresh look, did some editing and that was that.

It was simple, unless I ran into those teachers with stone rubrics that required outlines and first drafts. Explaining my process fell on deaf ears, and if I did not turn in an outline and a first draft, a C was the best grade I got.

I adjusted.

I stuck to my process, on a condensed time table. I wrote the final paper, and then an outline instead of editing. When it was approved, I’d go back to my final paper, remove chunks, add some grammatical errors and hand it in as a first draft. All the rubrics in stone were met, and I did not get another C.

This held true for creative writing in school, too. I had plot lines and characters developed in my head, and when it was time to write something for critique, it remained a matter of transcribing. Revising incorporated feedback from my classmates, when there was any, but there was always something from the professor so the final story submitted for a grade always incorporated those changes. They usually weren’t drastic, a few sentences of explanation, another dialogue scene, all worked out in my head before I sat down to revise and hand in.

One can argue I am overdue for a shakeup. I will argue I have been in search of a challenge.

I found it, last year, in the form of drafting.

What sticks out is that the classes I took at both StoryStudio Chicago and the University of Chicago’s Graham School were nonfiction in nature, and fell in the realm of the personal narrative. I wasn’t writing some company’s story. I wasn’t writing observations about the legal tech space. I wasn’t writing about anything external, and at arms length. I was writing about myself, my experiences, and recalling details I didn’t want to recall. Because I had to write about myself, my experiences, often dark, my brain kept trying to shift gears so I didn’t think about it. Not enough of me had the confidence that I would be able to shift out of that gear again if I followed my normal writing routine of thinking through it all and then dictating through fingers to a final product. Thinking turned into arguments, and little writing got done.

Every morning, then, before I left for work, I sat at the counter in my apartment, and wrote. I eventually found it helpful to have some direction, a specific viewpoint say, or writing down all the sensory details of a particular event. It provided a focus, an argument already made and I only had to supply supporting evidence. I’d write until I had to leave for work, and in the evening, between getting home and going to volleyball, basketball or soccer, I’d write some more. When I got home from sports, I’d read through and edit.

I was often surprised as what my fingers transcribed, and surprised at my ability to show instead of tell. The less I thought about it, the easier it became to show it, and from the writing of “show, not tell,” came understanding. Sometimes I chucked whole pieces and started over. Sometimes I expanded sections. Sometimes I rewrote sections. Sometimes I cut down 5200 words to 1000, the limit for a class, and surprised I had that much to say.

One piece took 22 drafts.

22 drafts.

For someone who doesn’t do drafts, well, yeah, I don’t know what to make of that yet.

In a way, it doesn’t matter. And in the end, it has been beneficial. I draft for work now, though I still think first and dictate later more than I draft. Even this post, though has gone through a few drafts.

It all strikes me as a better melding of my “Write well. Edit better” mantra, and applying it to me.