“Don’t compare your rough draft to someone else’s final product.”

You’ve probably seen that before, maybe in Helvetica with some sort of soothing photo background, but maybe you’ve never really thought about what, exactly, it means. How many steps go between a rough draft and a final product?

Short answer: too many, thanks.

Longer answer: let me walk you through it.

First, I have some sort of nebulous idea. Sometimes it just comes from reading and thinking about a topic. Other times I see a CFP (Call for Papers/Proposals) that gets me thinking in a certain direction. Depending on the deadline, I can remain at this nebulous idea stage for weeks or months.

Sometimes I do a little more research here, too, with my idea in mind. This can help it become less nebulous. This means another few weeks (or months) before I actually start to draft it. I might take notes, scribbling ideas or phrases here and there, but a lot of my pre-planning takes place solely in my head.

Then comes the first written thing: the proposal. I have to have a good enough grasp on the idea to get it boiled down to fit the required word count. This can be around 300 words for a conference paper or a chapter, or longer for a book proposal (which also includes a couple chapters), but it’s me laying out what I’m going to do.

It’s also the first time where my idea – and however much writing I’ve done so far – gets feedback. This is important: I’ve only really started writing the thing, but I’m already getting feedback. Someone else has already seen it and provided a nudge.

It’s also important to note that, at this point, I’ve got a complete outline. I know where things are going, and the people judging whether it’s an idea worth pursuing know it, too. If things get approved, I’m locked in.

Then, if I get the go-ahead, we get to the actual writing itself. Which usually looks like:

  • the first draft: just get the words on the page. Jump around that outline if I get stuck. Slowly narrow down the parts of the draft that still need to be written until I have to write the stuff I didn’t want to at first.
  • let it sit: put the draft aside after saving it in multiple formats, just in case, and don’t look at it for a while. Do more research if I found any gaps. Let it become as new and strange to myself as I can.
  • read it again: with multiple pens and my stamps at hand, I pick up a hard copy of my rough draft and go to town on it. I go directly for the weak spots. Sorry, Past Me, but this part sucks. So does this one. And this … well, it’s a mess. I color-code the issues and make a ton of notes to myself.
  • attempt to fix it: once the paper copy is covered, I’ll go back to the computer and start implementing the changes. I say “attempt to fix it” because yeah, sometimes new issues get introduced at this point, but … I try.
  • let it rest again: if I have time, I take another break. Try to make it strange and new and exciting again before I come back to it.
  • read through from the beginning, slowly: this is where I have Word read it out loud to me, and man, this part takes time. I’m looking for continuity, to see if the patches I put in totally stand out and need to be smoothed over, and also for any typos. Through, though, thorough … that kind of thing. I’m super nitpicky at this stage because it’s usually the last thing I do, mostly because the thing is due.

And now somebody else sees it. The whole thing and not just the proposal.

At this point the writing gets bounced back and forth multiple times between the editor, peer reviewer(s), and me. I get comments, make changes, and send it back. Get updated comments, make more changes, and send it back. I think the most times I’ve volleyed something is three, but I’m responding to multiple people at this point, in multiple roles. Trying to make them happy because, if they’re not happy, this isn’t going to get published.

Then there’s another break, on their end instead of mine this time. Time to twiddle my thumbs or get more ideas.

Some day, out of the blue, I’ll get proofs. Another chance to go over it line by line and look for typos or other issues that might have snuck in. If it’s a book, I’m also doing the index. And usually I’ve got a couple other people reading through it at this point in case I miss something.

And then – then – it gets published.

Phew.

I mean, I fall into the same trap sometimes – I want that first draft to be perfect. Polished. The absolute best writing I’m capable of producing. Even when I know all the steps that still have to come before it’s actually out there.

But your first draft is just … a draft. Something only you ever have to see. The thing you’re going to massage and tweak before handing it over to other people who will further massage and tweak.

Don’t compare your first draft to someone else’s final product, and don’t compare your first draft to your own previous final products, either.

Do you struggle with this, too? Do you have any advice on how to keep from thinking this way?

One thought on ““Don’t compare your rough draft to someone else’s final product.””

  1. I don’t know that I’ve ever taken myself from a rough draft to a final copy on any kind of long project. I mostly work in short stories, so my brain doesn’t have to imagine something so big. It sounds like quite a lot of work and organization are involved!

    Like

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