First Draft Follies

I’m launching a new blog series today: First Draft Follies. (*1)

Here’s the deal: Writers write more words than they publish. A published book is the result of writing, re-writing, editing, paring, agonizing, and head-bashing. For example, the first draft of the Ambitious Brew manuscript was 175,000 words long. The final book, however, came in at about 115,000.

Put another way, I wrote thousands of words that I never "used." Why? Many reasons, but the main one is this: When writers write, they’re constructing a "narrative arc," the "storyline," if you will, of the book. But not everything they "know" about their subject is necessary for or even relevant to, the final narrative arc. As Hemingway said while writing Death In The Afternoon (and I'm paraphrasing his comment): writers read fifty books (or documents or whatever) just to write one paragraph.

Also -- and this may be my own authorial idiosyncrasy (*2) -- one way I discover what I know and how to use it in my narrative arc is by writing it all out. I construct (write) a large, overarching structure before I figure out what is my smaller, narrower, narrative arc.

All that writing and decision-making produces three consequences.

First, I write many words that never make it into print. Second, I make choices about which of those words do make it into print. Third, lots of juicy material lands on the equivalent of my cutting room floor.

I’ve decided to liberate some of those "wasted" words and give them a home here at the blog. The wise among you are now thinking: "Hmmm, if this stuff wasn't good enough for the final version what the hell makes you think any of us want to read it?"

Great question. And the answer is: you may not want to waste your time. This is clunky, first-draft prose, and I’m putting in the blog as is, with no re-writes, re-arrangements, or any other kind of polishing.

On the other hand, the content of these drafts contains so-called "primary evidence" that otherwise won’t make the light of day because I don't use that material in the published work. (I've blogged about primary sources and the historian's work. Find those entries under "A Historian's Work" in the "categories" box in the left-hand sidebar.)

But this is also a useful exercise for me, a professional historian and writer. Not, I hasten to add, an exercise in vanity; I have no illusions about my talent as a writer. Rather, picking out these bits of excised text allows me to think about how I write, and why I make the choices I make.

Having said all of that, I hope that you, the reader, enjoy wandering through these First Draft Follies.


*1: Links to my other blog series are in the categories on the left-hand sidebar.

*2: Damn! I’ve always wanted to use that phrase, and I finally found a use for it.