Throwing Away Your First Draft Is a Great Idea

On the occasion of throwing out the first 14,000 words of a manuscript

Last month I shared the 8,000 of 14,000 words of a new project with my writing group. It was the first two chapters of a novel, just the beginning of the story really. With these two chapters I’d taken a risk. I tried something interesting and—at least to my mind—unique. I was excited about it, and I had high hopes for it. I really wanted it to work. But of course, it didn’t.

Aside from the usual first draft issues, the writing was pretty good and everyone was interested in both the story and the world. But it didn’t work because no writer is good enough to ignore (not break artfully like the greats, but ignore) the structure of good stories. Which is exactly what I had done in my “experiment.” But that’s another post for another day. What matters for today is that I chucked it in the bin.

Almost all 14,000 of those words will never see the light of day. They will just sit there in my boneyard folder until bit rot or a crashing hard drive claims them. Any writer knows the feeling. It can be gut-wrenching.

That’s a lot of work to throw away. And don’t kid yourself, when it leaves your manuscript, you’re throwing it away. You might think, “Oh, there’s good stuff in there. I might find a use for it one day.” And you might. It’s completely possible. But for most of those words, this is the end of the line.

But the experienced writer knows the truth: Not one bit of progress was lost in that moment. Nope, not a single word was wasted. I had to write the first 14,000 words. Because it’s the only way to get to 14,001.

That is the way to measure progress. A writer who really understands their craft knows that there are hundreds of thousands of more words behind the 150,000 words in a novel. There are hundreds of words behind the scant 16 lines of a poem. For every word a reader reads on the printed page, likely a hundred or more were written.

So no, it didn’t feel good to toss out three full chapters of a book. And yes, I might be able to find some use for a few scraps. But every single one of those words that I tossed out had to be written. In a real way they are just as much a part of the book as the ones readers will actually read.

Never be afraid to throw away a draft that doesn’t work. It’s just one step closer to something that does.


Revisiting Hogwarts

It’s unfortunate that the writers of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child didn’t heed the very lesson they tried to teach their protagonists.

You can never go home again.

I kept thinking about this idea as I read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. When I read the script last weekend, I wanted to go back to Hogwarts again. It turns out that’s hard to do, even for the creator.

For a work that is to my mind clearly not the “eighth Harry Potter Book,” this might be a harsh way to judge it. So let’s consider this post a reaction, rather than a review. I’ll have more to say later, but these are my first thoughts, unaffected by the opinions of other Potter fans.

My first thought is that honestly, this is a work doesn’t need to exist. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun reading it. It was nice to see old friends grown up and in new situations. But it was also like a strange high school reunion. It’s a disorienting experience to be reunited with people who you’ve known since your childhood and who you walked the most formative experiences of your life with. Everyone is the same, but different—and not always for the better.

At first reading, this story seemed to do the one thing I hoped it would not. It changes the way I see the canonical series ending. And I don’t think the change honors the original series.

To be honest, I’m, disappointed in the play, even though there are plenty of great moments. Ms. Rowling did not write the script, but she does receive the lead credit on the story team. It’s unfortunate that she used her literary Time Turner to go back and revisit something so magnificent. Though I wish it was not true, this addition did not improve what was already perfected. If only the writer’s of this play would have heeded the lesson their protagonists learn about revising history.


‘Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully’ by John Piper

Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitfield, and C.S. Lewis by John Piper is a short, powerful and inspiring shot to the heart for any lover of words and Jesus. It’s one of the most fulfilling books I’ve read in a while, and one that left me wanting more.

Piper sews a common thread through the works of three great Christian Englishmen, namely that proclaiming the gospel of Christ beautifully helps us see him more beautifully. It’s a powerful assertion that he backs up clearly, and one that invites the reader to join these three giants.

George Herbert was a 16th century country pastor and poet, seen by scholars as an immensely pivotal figure in the history of English poetry. His works, published posthumously and published continually since, are entirely focused on his faith and devotion to Christ.

George Whitefield was an 18th century English preacher and key figure in the Great Awakening in both Britain and the American colonies. He preached an enormous number of sermons, an impossible number actually. Piper estimates that for many weeks of his life, actually preached for sixty hours a week. As Piper points out, for most of his career, Whitefield spoke more than he slept.

The most well known of these three men to readers today is of course, C.S. Lewis. Lewis was the foremost spokesman for British Christianity in the mid-20th century. He was an awe-inspiring public intellectual, taking three First Class Honors at Oxford, the top expert of Medieval English literature in the world, and a best-selling novelist.

Piper starts the book with an extended discussion of eloquence, particularly what kinds of eloquence either honor Christ or elevate the speaker and dishonor the cross. In turn, he then takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of each these three mens’ autobiographies, theologies, and professional lives, then settles into a different aspect of their work, each on this common thread of proclaiming the beauties of Christ.

This book is a must read in my mind for any Christian who is a writer, speaker, pastor, poet or avid reader. Even if you do not see yourself in any of these categories, I would commend this book to you. The illustrations draw from each of these men’s work will stretch your understanding of beauty in words, and your imagination of the glories of Christ. It’s an inspiring read that prompted me to pick up the pen and expend more poetic effort myself.


How to be a writer

We use the word 'writer' as a noun, as a job description, but really we use it as an honorific title. Those of us who love the written word struggle with how to bestow this title. We look at that word, 'writer', and see so many things. We see books on shelves, we see interviews in The Paris Review, we see a mythic figure, from whose mind springs whole new worlds. For many of us, we see a writer as one who has written, and one whose work was read and approved of by those who matter.

But, there are big differences amongst those who we could call writers. From the New York Times best-selling author, to the humble self-publisher who no one reads, we naturally see authors on a spectrum and only deem those above a certain point to be "writers." And the ones who are the worst about this, who judge success—or lack thereof—most harshly, and hold back the title most stingily are the people who aspire to the title themselves. I don't think we should look at the word that way.

I'm not suggesting that the title 'writer' is something that anyone should be able to lay claim to. Far from it. I think it should be a slippery handhold at the top of a long climb. I think it should be hard to lay your hands on, and hard to hold on to. I think it should be earned.

But if I do not think the title should be bestowed on only the well-reviewed, the best-selling, or the academic darlings, then on what basis would I commission by fellow artists with that precious word? By looking back to the meaning of the word.

A writer is one who writes. We shouldn't use it as a noun, but as a verb—as a description of action.

That should be the ground on which we claim our title, because writing is a practice. A writer must write every day. It is a muscle that withers easily, it is a skill that fades. And if you aspire to be a 'writer', then on that ground you should judge yourself. Are you writing each day? Or most days? Are your projects moving forward? Do your word counts continue to increase? If yes, then count yourself amongst the ink-stained wretches who seek to make their living with just their words and wits.

This post is motivation for me, even in writing it. Because I'm not a writer unless I'm writing. And lately, I haven't been writing. The circumstances don't matter, in these things they hardly ever do. My pen needs to meet paper more. My fingers need to touch the keys each morning. Because that is how you really become a writer.


Don’t write like a CEO, write like Hemingway

My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.</p>

― Ernest Hemingway

One of my primary responsibilities in my job as an IT strategist is documenting how our team sees the technology landscape, and how our organization should respond. By its very nature this task requires taking complicated subjects and making them understandable. Even further, our papers serve as advice and guidance to decision makers who do not necessarily understand the technical nuances of every topic, yet they must be equipped to make the right decisions. As you can imagine, this can be a tricky feat to pull off.

I act as an editor for much of the work our team produces, and I read broadly in the subjects we cover. As a result I have learned a lot about writing in the corporate/technical environment. And, the fact is, most of the writing in my industry is not very good.

It's not that the ideas aren't good, or that the authors are not smart people. That's almost never the case. These are smart people who are not trained in writing effectively and clearly for their context and goals. And it's not about being a "technical" writer, either. I reject the idea that technical writing is a wholly separate discipline.[ref]A good writer can write about technology, they just have to understand it well first. That's usually the problem.[/ref] And, it's not just in the technical fields, corporate writing on the whole is pretty terrible stuff.

Why is it so bad? Because it is too complicated.

In all writing, simplicity is a virtue. I love the work of Ernest Hemingway for this very reason, his work is steeped in simplicity. He is straight forward and honest in a way that was revolutionary for his time. In a world dominated by words spread at the speed of light, we need to rediscover that way of writing.

In that spirit, I offer three suggestions to improve your writing on the job:

Don't write in 'corporate-speak', write honestly

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.
― Ernest Hemingway

We've all read enough corporate-speak to know it when we see it. We tend to dismiss it as harmless. In its most innocent incarnation we hear it and use it as shorthand, a simple way to convey complex ideas. Of course it gets ridiculously out of hand easily: "The organization should leverage its synergies to facilitate bleeding edge advances in solutions that align with our corporate values." Ugh, gross.

On the more nefarious end of the spectrum, we can also recognize it as a politically correct nod to the difficulties of being honest with large groups of people. In fact, corporate-speak today aligns more with George Orwell's observation about political speech: "Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Instead, write with honesty. Illustrate a simple point with simple words. As Hemingway would advise, fire up your shit detector.

Don't be passive, write in an active voice

This is the number one issue I find, and in my opinion it's also the worst thing an author can do to a reader. Think about the typical corporate-speak that is applied to problems. How often do we read something like, "We experienced issues on the website due to unplanned maintenance." I'm sorry, what? 'We experienced issues', is so distant sounding, which is of course the point. We didn't break the site, the site 'experienced issues'. It's usually just a not-too-subtle way of saying, "don't blame me, man!"

Instead, even when talking about things such as server issues, use an active voice. It's more interesting, and it is usually far more honest. Simply put, active voice is when your subject performs the verb: 'The boy hit the ball.' Passive voice is when the subject receives the action of the verb: 'The ball was hit by the boy.' So why don't we write in active voice? Why don't we write, "The website is unavailable," instead of "we experienced issues on the website"? In my experience, it's usually for two reasons. First, passive voice distances the subject from the verb, which often shifts accountability. Second, many people think passive voice sound more high-minded (on that, see the next point).

While Hemingway never wrote about server issues, but he did have a knack for connecting to the reader with active, direct language. He was able to convey full experience in just a few lines. While few can live up to his accomplishments, we should think of the clarity and directness of his language when writing, even at work:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Don't try to sound fancy, write with clarity and simplicity

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
― Ernest Hemingway

Using big words when simpler words will do does not make you look smart. Sorry, it's just true. No reads the word 'use' and thinks, "Wow, what a dummy. He didn't write 'utilize'." The extent of a writers vocabulary is not related the quality of his work, nor to the value of his work to the reader.

This is not to say that unusual words are out of bounds, I love strange and unusual words. When used well and sparingly, interesting words can grab the attention of the reader and spark interest. There is no denying the power of just the right word, in just the right place. But in corporate writing the use of complicated words instead of simpler, better, and more understandable words is far, far too common. I think these selected examples show the value in simplicity:

  • Advantageous — helpful
  • Consolidate — combine
  • Endeavor — try
  • Facilitate — ease, help
  • Leverage — use
  • Optimize — perfect
  • Competencies — skills
  • Regarding — about
  • Subsequently — after or later

Even if writing is not the majority of your work, if you use a computer for any significant part of your day, then you really are a writer. These rules apply across the board. From emails, to business plans, from whitepapers to project specs, the written word is foundation of business in the modern age. And the better writer you are, the better you will be at your job.