Nothing wasted, nothing lost

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while: when folks talk about learning to write, they often–understandably–also talk about how they need to learn how to work out their structure and plot and character motivations and any number of other things ahead of time, before they begin writing. Doing so is fine, of course, if that’s the writing process that works best for you; my argument isn’t with that, at all. (It once was, five or ten years ago, but I’ve grown up since then. Your process is your process; do whatever works, always.)

But what does make me uncomfortable is the language used to describe that plan-everything-in-advance process. Over and over again it seems I hear things like:

– I don’t want to waste time rewriting
– I don’t want to waste time on mistakes
– I don’t want to waste time on things I just wind up throwing away

I don’t want to waste time. I guess I can understand this too. Writing takes so much time, even when things go well. Most writers I know wish they could make it take less time.

And yet.

If it turns out your writing process doesn’t involve working everything out ahead of time, if you write best by jumping in and seeing where you wind up and revising until you can barely stand it afterwards … if that’s your process, nothing is ever wasted or thrown away.

I don’t just mean this in vague, feel-good terms. What I mean is that the rough and unwieldy sort of first (and second, and third) drafts this sort of writing can lead to is exactly what an unplanned, messy writer needs to get to the final, polished draft.

All those things in the early drafts that change in the later ones? The later drafts only happen at all because the early drafts were there first, and because they informed the later drafts, showing what those drafts did and didn’t want to be about, what did and didn’t belong.

Or, looked at another way: messy writers need to get all the words of our early rough drafts down on paper, so that our more polished later drafts have fertile ground to grow out of.

So nothing is wasted. Nothing is lost. Nothing is thrown away. It’s all there in the final draft, though if we do our jobs well, the reader doesn’t see it, any more than they see the detailed outlines and character sketches written by other sorts of writers.

And that final draft–for those of us who write this way–wouldn’t be the same, wouldn’t have the same depth and resonance and characters and yes, even plot–without all the messy early words that we later changed.

Writers don’t write this way because we haven’t learned any better yet. We write this way because–just like any other writer–we’ve tried different processes, and found that this is the process by which we create our best work.

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