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Unpublished Writing – A Waste Of Time?

June 30, 2014

It’s been an interesting time for my writing. Last week I got virtually nothing done on it, having spent much of the week at an astronomy conference1, though I did have a couple of plot-related brainwaves with the help of a good friend. The previous week was far more productive, meanwhile, with two chapters finalised for the foreseeable future2

As ever, the second draft is overwhelmingly dominated by new material, with much of my first draft unlikely to be (directly) used. This is largely due to the latter’s slow pacing, as I’ve said before. To give just one example: the new draft reaches a certain key scene in 20k words, whereas the old draft took over 50k (!) to reach the original version of said scene. The result has been a massive improvement…in my opinion, at least.

I mentioned the above to one of my colleagues the other week, and he seemed honestly surprised by my attitude. I had spent months upon months on a full novel draft, after all, only to discard much of it soon afterwards. Little of what I wrote for that draft, modified or otherwise, will be seen by anyone besides myself. And so, my colleague asked me: had I not just wasted my time?

No. Of course I hadn’t.

The likely fate of much of my first draft. Source: shutterstock

The likely fate of much of my first draft. Source: shutterstock

With hindsight, there’s a number of ways I could have approached this question. Most obviously, I could have just said that the first draft is blatantly unusable: it is too slow, too cluttered, and contains far too many elements that change as things go along. Merely editing it would indeed be a waste of time, which is precisely why I’m doing so much rewriting. I want to publish this book some day; with that in mind, clinging to my old material would be a huge mistake.

My answer at the time, however, was slightly different. The first draft was, as I explained, my practise run – something for my eyes only, written to bring myself one step closer to going public.  I needed this practice, just as a musician must practice for hours on end before a performance.  Is practising a waste of time? I think not. Is it a waste of time to perform without having properly prepared? Definitely – and not just for the performer, either.

Really, there is no such thing as wasted time where writing is concerned. At the very least, a written piece provides its author with experience for use in future endeavours. For me, getting published is the ultimate goal; getting any particular piece published, however, would just be an added bonus.

1 The National Astronomy Meeting, in case you’re wondering. And I’m not complaining; I had a brilliant time out there.

2 IE: until my alpha readers suggest changes. So probably not long, then.

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From → Writing

12 Comments
  1. Matthew Wright speaks of the 10 000hour/million word apprenticeship all writers need to go through. At the end of all that you’re not done learning how to be a writer, but you’ve achieved a reasonable level of competence, enough to know that what you’re writing now is actually rubbish, or needs more work, etc. These early drafts are how we build up that first million.

    • They are indeed :). Granted, I don’t think I’m even at the 500k mark yet, so I guess I’ve still some way to go.

      I wonder what I’ll think of my current work by the time I hit a million. I’m thinking not much, personally 😛

  2. It is a vital part of the writing process to write (and sometimes to trash) first drafts. I find that it is often a good way to set the plot and characters down in a tangible form so that I can evaluate them clearly. Ultimately, you aren’t a writer unless you are writing something – even if you don’t like it when it is done.

    • Agreed. Before I started the first draft, I thought my planned plotline was near-perfect; then I actually tried to write it down, at which point I realised that it…wasn’t. Most of the characters have survived as they originally were, but the plot has received a ton of changes.

      Thanks for stopping over; richly appreciated! 😀

  3. If I didn’t write my first draft I wouldn’t have my second. My second is always so much better that the first. In every way.
    And the third even better (it’s all relative though you understand… ;-))
    Sean Platt summarises the minimum number of drafts everyone should go through as: “say it, say what you mean, say it well.”
    I can’t say it well without having said it first. Just need to get the say it well phases down into single figures… 🙂

    I had a mentality of not wanting to waste one word, but your analogy to a pianist is spot on. Those are never wasted words, they may just never see publication. That’s ok. I still get frustrated when I can’t use something, but that’s because I want to produce more. I’ve made a mental switch in my head that means I still value the time spent even if I am impatient.

    • I think for me, it’s been more a case of “say it, say something else, say what you mean, say it well” :P. No idea how many “say it well” phases there will be for me, yet, but I’m guessing it’ll be quite a few.

      I don’t usually mind “wasted” words so long as I haven’t only just written them. It doesn’t happen to me all that often anymore, but I’ve just written a bunch of stuff only to realise at the same sitting that none of it’s usable, well…it’s annoying, I’ll admit.

  4. I agree with the other bloggers, and with you. Time spent writing is never time wasted. A first draft is supposed to be crappy in the eyes of its creator. *lol* Crappy, but full of promise as long as you see it for yourself. Any additional drafts after that are sure to improve further on the story.

    Hanging on to that first draft isn’t a bad idea, either. Even though you’re doing a lot of rewriting for the second draft, you can still draw from the first draft and keep what you do like from it, down to ideas, scenes, conversations, descriptions, even single quotes you liked. Although from the sounds of it, you’re probably already doing this. 😉

    • Well, my first draft is certainly far from good in my eyes ;). There’s still quite a few descriptions I’ll be re-using from it at some point, but…well, yeah. I won’t be hitting that “delete” button any time soon, at any rate.

  5. In my opinion, that’s exactly what first drafts are. They’re practice…and something to work off of. First drafts always suck, but that’s their job. You can’t improve something that doesn’t exist, right? So, you have a first draft to improve upon. And sometimes, improving it means scrapping it.

    • Indeed. The first draft was a valulable learning experience for me, but it’s not looking as though I’ll get much (direct) use out of it. Here’s hoping the second first draft (as I’m now calling it) proves to be a little more permanent 😀

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