Caution: Step Away From the Draft
On the Importance of Patience and Detachment in the Drafting Process
You’ve done it before. You sit down to write and, miraculously, the words flow. The writing comes easy. You feel while you’re writing as if you’re saying what you wanted to be saying back when the idea for the story in question was still incubating inside your brain. The sentences you come up with feel both creative and concise. You’re having fun. Time melts. You finish the draft. Then, still riding the high of the miracle that is writing come easy, and feeling certain that the draft you’ve come up with is good, you press onward to publishing.
It doesn’t matter what sort of thing you’ve been working on—a short story; an essay; a blog; an email—to allow yourself to press on in this manner is a mistake. There are several obvious reasons why. Writing, it is said, is really a matter of rewriting, of chipping away meticulously and tirelessly at the usually ugly block of marble that is your first draft until you have a version of the thing that’s closer to good and true. Giving your text a more cursory edit is likewise sort of a base-level good practice for ensuring whatever piece of writing you send out into the world is not littered with what would have been easy-to-fix typos or grammarian violations, which convey to the reader a certain sloppiness and, in turn, a sort of disrespect.
Less obvious a reason for never rushing out a first or even a second draft, however, is that doing so robs you of the opportunity to step away from the draft completely—for a day or for a week or, hell, as long as you need to regain an objective editorial perspective. Doing so, in my opinion, does more to improve your writing than just about anything else.
Why is this kind of rather militant patience and detachment so beneficial? For one thing, you know that feeling you get when the writing’s coming easy, and you finish the draft, and when you finish you’re certain that what you’ve written is brilliant and probably perfect? That feeling is a lie. No first draft is brilliant and perfect. Writing is rewriting. Locking your draft away for however long it takes for you to forget about it proves an effective means of allowing that deceptive sheen of the first-draft’s high to melt away, such that you can both assess more clearly the imperfect state of the words you’ve assembled in their present form, as well as think more clearly about how they should be reassembled so as to more clearly say the thing you’re trying to say.
In On Writing, Stephen King suggests that writers lock their drafts in a desk drawer for six weeks after finishing them. Obviously you don’t always have the luxury of detaching so completely from your works-in-progress. But you have to detach in some form. Does this make sense? Will readers understand what I’m trying to say? Does this metaphor achieve the thing I want for it to achieve, or is it distracting and superfluous and needy? All these questions are impossible to answer in the afterglow of the first draft; they’re much easier to answer in the sober light of a different day.
As tends to be my way, I’ve learned all this the hard way, having sent to editors I admire and respect premature pitches, drafts, and queries riddled with all kinds of embarrassing mistakes and blemishes that I shudder thinking about now. I’ve published to my personal Medium, Twitter, and Substack pages screeds I thought were brilliant at the moment, but that revealed themselves to be undercooked and embarrassing once out in the world.
The lesson, however hard it was to learn, however, has proven beneficial. Patience and detachment can spare you from embarrassment and missed opportunity. But perhaps more importantly, it can help ensure that whatever you do send out into the world is the best, clearest version of itself possible. Which of course is an impossible-to-reach goal—the reason writing is actually rewriting is that perfection is itself impossible—but patience and detachment can get you closer. Personally, I try stepping away from my works-in-progress any time I make significant progress on them, such that when I step back to them, I can assess them objectively. Rinse, repeat. My last long essay, an 8,000 word longform piece for The Ringer, I repeated this process dozens, if not hundreds, of times. It made the piece better.
And so. My point: step away. It’s a means of respecting your work. In the age of social media, Medium, and Substack, where everyone can be their own publisher, I reckon this is an important reminder. Because being your own publisher comes with a very important responsibility, which is being your own editor, too.