As a writer, I like to gather inspirational or instructional quotes from other authors to spur me on, over, or through the difficulties of writing. Eventually, many of those quotes sneak into my classroom to inspire and instruct my middle school writers and readers as well. Usually the quote is short, full of meaning, and easy to remember.
The following isn’t. Short, that is. But it is full of meaning and well-worth remembering the message if not the words.
Before I introduce this quote to my middle school students at the beginning of the year, I introduce them to its author, Julia Cameron, a talented writer of fiction, plays, movie scripts, and nonfiction. She is most famous for her timeless bestseller, THE ARTIST’S WAY, a book famous for encouraging millions of artists—not just writers—to pursue their art. I explain to my students that her name is equated the world over with helping people learn to better access their own innate artistic abilities. And then I share Ms. Cameron’s wise words about the way to write a first draft:
“Early in my writing life I tried to polish as I went….Writing this way was frustrating, difficult and disheartening…I learned to write, setting judgment aside and save the polish for later…For the first time I gave myself emotional permission to do rough drafts and for those rough drafts to be, well, rough. Freed to be rough, my writing actually became smoother. Freed from the demand that it be instantly brilliant, perfect and clever, my writing became not only smoother but also easier and more clear.” (p. 19) –Julia Cameron, THE RIGHT TO WRITE: AN INVITATION AND INITIATION INTO THE WRITING LIFE.
After I share this with my students, I tell them that this is how I expect them to approach writing in my classroom. I expect them to know that the first draft is not the final draft, but that it is a necessary part of the creative process. I explain that they will write far more first drafts than final drafts, and that’s okay. Finally, I tell them that their first drafts should be mostly about creativity, fun, and enjoying the intoxicating freedom of getting their ideas down on paper.
And once they breathe a sigh of relief, they want to know how to go about writing such a fun, creative, free first draft.
And so I tell them.
Most experienced writers approach their first draft fast and furious. They don’t worry about conventions, or mechanics, or spelling, or coming up with beautiful language. They don’t even worry about writing in chronological order, instead, they just write down what appears in their head as it appears. The experienced writer knows that the most important thing at this point isn’t flowing language or beautiful words. No, the most important thing is to get those fleeting thoughts and ideas down on paper. Now!
Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, the same basic approach applies. Read over your notes and then set them aside and begin writing. Write until you run out of things to say. Drain the brain. Write until you are worn out. Or more likely, you will be exhilarated because this kind of low stakes, purely creative writing is fun. If you are writing along on your nonfiction piece and all of a sudden you realize that you need some particular fact or piece of information that you didn’t research, whatever you do, don’t interrupt the flow of that first draft to find those facts. Make yourself a note to look for them later, and keep writing!
If you are half way through your short story and all of a sudden you know exactly how that final scene should go, write it down. It doesn’t matter if it is out of order. You can always come back and switch things around, but you might not be able to come back later and recall that brilliant idea.
In the process of writing your first draft, it is wholly possible that you realize that it won’t work. You realize that your story isn’t completely developed in your mind so you can’t get it completely down on paper or that your nonfiction article needs more research. Oh, well. That is also what the first draft is for. Get down what you have, and now you know exactly what you have to think about in order to get it finished. No sweat.
As you write a first draft you don’t want to invest too much time in polishing and crafting something that you ultimately might be cutting out. Just keep writing, knowing that you are throwing in more than you need. It is easier to cut than to add, so don’t worry about it. As Julia Cameron advises, when in doubt, throw it in.
Don’t make a point of editing as you go along. Editing and revision are for drafts down the road. First drafts are purely creative and fun. They are a riotous garden full of all kinds of flowers that later will be culled and tamed, cut and manicured. But that is for later. The first draft is just about the purity of writing. And thinking. And putting strange and seemingly unrelated thoughts together.
A first draft isn’t complete until the structure of the story or nonfiction piece that you are writing is complete. Once that structure is there, your first draft is done. Whew! Congratulations!
One fun way to get loosened up and in the mode of this type of first-draft, edit-less writing is to sign up for NaNoWriMo, or the National Novel Writing Month, in November. This is a month-long program that encourages writers of all ages to stop thinking
about writing and just get it done
. In addition to the adult program, there’s a NaNoWriMo Young Writer’s Program
Last year, 50,000 young writers took the challenge and signed up to write—and complete—a novel in the time span of one month. Imagine, a whole month devoted to writing without the worry of editing your words!
Through the NaNoWriMo program and website, the young writers who participate have many resources available to them, including help setting reasonable word count goals, workbooks to help them formulate their ideas before they actually start writing, online pep talks from published authors, and the opportunity to communicate with other young writers taking on the same challenges. The workbooks are located at http://ywp.nanowrimo.org/workbooks.
For teachers, the program offers a Resources for Educators
page, which includes lesson plans and the ability to set up a virtual classroom. You can even request a FREE kit to help your students log their progress.
NaNoWriMo begins one month from today. Consider taking that time to introduce NaNoWriMo to your students, and encourage them to accept the challenge it presents.
After all, it’s definitely a great way to encourage your students to experience the fast and furious fun of a first draft! Julie Danneberg has learned all about first drafts through the writing of many books for children including, FIRST DAY JITTERS and her newly released picture book biography, MONET PAINTS A DAY. In addition, she has taught reading and writing in both elementary and middle school. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado, where she teaches 7th grade reading. Visit her website at www.juliedanneberg.com. Are you a teacher whose class is participating in the 2012 NaNoWriMo Young Writer’s Program or has in the past? We want to hear from you! Send us an email at email@example.com
© 2012 Julie Danneberg. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.