“Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.”
I love this quote. In a single sentence William Zinsser managed to capture the definition of what writing truly is.
But I also have a problem with it. To me, it omits an important aspect of writing, one you figure out only after wasting a lot of time getting your copy right.
Because, you see, you rewrite well only if you have a solid base material. Otherwise, you end up starting all over, often many times at that, figuring out what you want to say instead of focusing on your original message.
A message that in fact often gets lost in the process.
Unfortunately, it is quite common for writers, beginner and experienced ones alike to struggle with rewriting. I have been there myself many times too. Even now, with my experience there are days when I struggle with focus on ideas instead of perfecting my copy.
Can something be done about it? Yes. Is it easy? It actually is. The key to it lies in how well you are prepared to writing your first draft.
How to Prepare to Write a First Draft
Write Down Your Goal
Start by clearly formulating what you want to achieve. Are you writing to inform a reader about something? Perhaps you want to offer advice or teach them something new? If so, what is it? Also, why you are doing this, what’s the purpose for the copy? What should be the final outcome of it?
Include answers to all these questions in your goal, but do it in no more than 25 words. Be concise. Once you are done, rewrite it until you manage to distil it into a single sentence.
What’s the point in doing this, you ask, especially that you are supposed to have all those ideas in your head anyway?
Writing helps you to formulate your thoughts. Once put in writing, your goal is no longer an abstract concept in your head but a concrete and defined idea you can refer to. Having it in front of you will help you stay in check while writing your draft but also, establish if you met your objective during editing.
Describe Who You Are Writing For
I accept that you might not have a specific content persona worked out for your article but even knowing who your audience is in general (i.e. “graphic designers straight out of college trying to find their first design job“) will instantly push you to write in a specific way, use language and tone that will appeal to them.
Research How Your Ideas Differ From What Others Are Saying
There is more content being published today than ever before. In order to stand out from that noise of articles, blog posts, videos, graphics and who knows what else, you need to present at least a unique take on a topic, if not a completely new approach to it. Therefore, research what others are saying to ensure that you do not double the advice but also, to find out what unique angle you could take with your piece. It will help you later on, during rewriting when you won’t have to focus on ideas but rather on the form of your article.
List Sections You Intend to Write and Create An Outline
First drafts are chaotic, I accept that. Their role after all is to first and foremost allow you to pour your thoughts on paper.
And while your first draft doesn’t have to be organized, having some sort of order of arguments will help you stay in check while writing. You will most likely change things around during rewriting, and that’s fine. With an outline, however, you won’t have to spend too much time figuring out what you really wanted to say in the first place.
Decide Which Person You Want To Write In
Some writers don’t find working out the person they will be writing in that important. For me however, it is one of the most important aspects of preparing myself to write. For you see, it is so easy to get confused and start jumping from a person to person while writing, speaking in first person in certain sections and jumping to dry, brochure style in others only because it sounded better while you were writing. By doing so however, you double your work later on, having to clear all that up while rewriting.
Decide What Tense You Will Be Using
Tense is not something you would normally think about before writing, I admit. You just want to sit down in front of your computer and type, working out the tense as you go along. Or even later on, when you rewrite.
But having the tense decided earlier on is another thing that will keep your copy in check, keeping you from drifting away while drafting your piece.
Specify How Are You Going To Approach The Reader
Lastly, decide how you are going to approach your readers. Will you be a reporter, stating facts or telling them about what happened? Or perhaps you want to speak to them like an average person, offering advice from experience, almost like having a peer to peer discussion?
Having this decided will also help you to formulate your style, language and tone of the piece.
When Is It OK To Rush Unprepared Into First Draft
I know, I have spent a considerable part of the article discussing the flaws of rushing into writing and now this? Well, don’t worry, everything’s OK. I haven’t changed my mind. I am still against rushing into writing.
With one exception however. You see, writing unprepared is how I get out of the writers block.
There days when words just don’t want to come out. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t formulate a single sentence on a topic. No research and preparation will help on days like this. The only thing you can do to overcome this is, well, write. Write anything on the subject, regardless of how good or bad it is (and most likely it will be really bad). Most likely the next day you will have to star over but that’s OK. At that point the writers block will be a distant memory and you will be able to write the new version more clearly.
In any other situation, prepare for writing your first draft. It will save you time and stress later on.
Your first draft will never be amazing, that’s a fact. Even with all this preparation it will still suck bad. The difference, however, is that while editing it you will no longer have to chase your ideas but focus on getting the form right. And, that’s a huge benefit if you ask me.