Drafts and process

I finally started cranking out the rough draft of Mosaic this week. I wanted to get a sense of the data before I started writing, and I think that was a good decision, as the material has been churning around in my head quite a bit lately. Consequently, at least parts of the book are easy to write. I’d set a target to be done with 3 chapters by now, and despite starting 3 weeks late, I’m at 2.5 now, on Wednesday, and I suspect I’ll be able to get through a draft of the third chapter by end of day Friday. Making progress is motivational.

This is now my 10th book-length non-fiction manuscript. I’ve got 4 unpublished novels in my life, too. I’m not sure how much I know about writing an excellent book, but I have figured out how to get a book done. And that’s something.

A key component for me is, first, having something to say. When I haven’t done enough research, my thesis is muddled and I feel like it’s hard to write. When I’ve done a lot of research, and interviews, more ideas keep popping into my head. I know there’s enough material. While doing more research is sometimes just a method of procrastination, I find that when I can’t write something, doing more research will, in fact, be helpful.

Second, I need to produce a draft. It need not be a great draft. In fact, it won’t be. Anne Lamott has popularized the phrase “s**tty first drafts” to describe these beasts and that is precisely what they are. I have been outlining chapters of Mosaic so I know roughly the order my s**tty first draft of each chapter should take, and where various stories and stats should go. But the writing is sloppy. I use “actually” way too much. I repeat myself. I’m too wordy. I put in a lot of “TK” — a newspaper term meaning “to come.” That is, I’m not bothering to put in the real quote or stat right now. It will come later.

But this deliberate sloppiness is liberating. I can crank out a 4000 word draft of a chapter in about 3 hours. On Monday afternoon I started the intro around 1 pm and by 4 pm I had something. Yesterday, I started writing chapter 2 at 6 a.m., and despite taking a few small breaks, by around 9:30 I had another 3500 words. This morning I only put an hour into chapter 6, but I have 1800 words.

Wait, you say, why did you write the intro, chapter 2, and chapter 6 first? This comes from reading about the psychology of progress. Those 3 chapters happen to be the easiest chapters to write. They’re the topics I’ve written about most before, and that I have the most raw material to base the chapters on. If I’d written in order, I might still be stuck on chapter 1, and that would not be particularly motivational. We need small wins. Small wins propel us to take on harder work. Once I have 4 or 5 chapters written, the other 4 or 5 will seem like I’m just finishing up the manuscript, not that I’m staring at blank pages.

Of course, one doesn’t want to leave drafts in the s**tty state. I have developed some bad habits from blogging, namely the temptation after one edit to go “eh, it’s probably OK.” Not for a book. And so, one of the reasons to get the first draft done as soon as possible is so I have time to let it marinate, and to separate myself from it, and then come back and make it better, and then separate myself from it again, and come back, and then show it to my editor, who will think it is not bad for a first draft, probably because it’s already a fourth draft, but it still needs some work. After that, it may be decent.

How do you approach a big project?

9 thoughts on “Drafts and process

  1. When I have to write a scientific paper, I always write the results first because those often change a lot as I really dig deep into the data. Then, once I know what I did, I write the methods section describing it. Then I do the introduction, conclusion, and finally the abstract. Which is almost backward from the way the information in the paper is presented.

    1. Yup, my mentor taught me this and its really the only way to do it. Otherwise you get in a very rambling introduction or faff around on methods you may not even be presenting. The results are really the POINT of the paper and everything else should support it.

  2. Save the conclusions for last. And, while it’s good to write it out asap, don’t edit/polish the introduction until the end, either.

  3. Laura, one of my favorite things about your blog is how you talk about your writing process. I enjoyed “168 hours” but I also enjoy these little windows into your process. I’m six days away from turning in my doctoral dissertation and, of course, been doing a lot of writing the last few months. I find it helpful to see your process, so thanks for sharing!

    1. @Rachel- congrats on getting it done! Yes, any long project is just about putting one foot in front of the other. Again and again.

  4. Laura I loved this post. I have been following your blog for a few months now, and I felt I wanted to comment on how useful I found this post in particular.

    I too am working on a few large projects now, and whenever I get stuck, I tell myself ‘bad first draft’, and ‘low-hanging fruit’, which is the same as the small wins you mentioned. In fact, I wrote a post about using low-hanging fruit to get progress in recently: http://geetanjalimukherjee.blogspot.sg/2014/04/stuck-on-your-project-with-looming.html

    I did like the fact that you use the same tactics, given you have successful published so many books – it gave me hope that my process isn’t that terrible, and that I could probably tweak it a bit – i.e. finish my first draft / each draft quicker, by telling myself it gives me more time to marinate. I love that idea – because getting through my current draft is always hard and I always feel it has to be perfect, even though it doesn’t.

    Thanks for this post!

    1. @Geetanjali- thanks so much! Yes, it does not have to be perfect. It can’t be. You’ll discover new things that will be in that draft, and better phrases will come to you. I should have started sooner, probably, but the faster I get finished with a draft the more time I’ll have to make it better.

      1. Laura,

        I just wanted to say again that I am currently reading 168 Hours, and loving it. Lots of insights!

        I wanted to ask you a question – not sure if you have answered it in an old post – given your focus on being more efficient – how do you tackle blog posts? How much time do you spend on brainstorming, outlining, writing – the whole process? Would love to see a post on this actually.

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