Need For Speed

When writing a novel, the advice many experienced and professional writers give to beginner writers is to write the first draft as quickly as possible without wasting time on fixing anything. Just get the words out on the page as fast as possible.


The first draft of a story or novel is often written at top speed. Maybe that is the best way to do it. Dorothy Canfield Fisher once compared the writing of a first draft with skiing down a steep slope that she wasn’t sure she was clever enough to manage. She says:

“Sitting at my desk one morning I ‘pushed off’ with a tingle of not altogether pleasurable excitement and alarm, felt myself ‘going’. I ‘went’ almost as precipitately as skis go down a long white slope, scribbling as rapidly as my pencil could go, indicating whole words with a dash and a jiggle, filling page after page with scrawls.”

Frank O’Conner doesn’t start changing words until the first draft is finished. He explains his need for speed:

“Get black on white used to be Maupassant’s advice- that’s what I always do. I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like, I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I can begin to see it.”

Once the first draft is finished he then rewrites “endlessly, endlessly, endlessly. I keep on rewriting and after it’s published, and then it’s published in book form, I usually rewrite again. I’ve written versions of most of my early stories, and one of these days, God help, I’ll publish these as well.”

Joyce Cary says:
“I work over the whole book and cut out anything that does not belong to the emotional development, the texture of feeling.”

James Thurber revises his stories by rewriting them from beginning, time and again. He says:
“A story I’ve been working on was rewritten fifteen complete times. There must have been close to two hundred and forty thousand words in all the manuscripts put together, and I must have spent two thousand hours working at it. Yet the finished story can’t be more than twenty thousand words.”

There are other writers, however, who revise as they write.

“I seem to have some neurotic need to perfect each paragraph- each sentence, even- as I go along.” William Styron

Dorothy Parker says that it takes her six months to do a story:
“I think it out and then write it sentence by sentence- no first draft. I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”

Julia Cameron, on the other hand, writes:
“Perfection has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. Perfectionism is not a quest for the best.”

Hmm… Makes me wonder! I always believed that what makes a writer’s work great is the commitment of the writer to rewriting endlessly until he/she achieves perfection. And to me that is what distinguishes the great writer from a good one.


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