The First Draft, The Second Draft…

Newsflash: the preface is rewritten. Chapter 1 is halfway rewritten. Most of the preface was salvageable. It had to be rearranged and paragraphs added to reflect what was actually in the chapters. But most of it survived. Chapter 1, however, is a different story. It’s being completely rewritten. Not much of the first draft is going to make it into the second draft. The topic is the same: introducing the basic building block of the risk theatre. But that’s about it.

Normally, this would be a bummer. But good thing I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It’s a book on writing fiction. But it applies to all sorts of writing. The basic toolkit is the same. The process is also similar. Non-fiction is still creative: you’re presenting the facts in a ‘story’ to persuade the reader. King’s advice came to mind: the first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the reader. No writer gets it right the first time. It is through the hard work of writing, rewriting, editing, coming up with the second draft, and the third draft that gets things done.

Now, what did King mean when he said that the first draft is for the writer and the second draft for the reader? This is what I think he means. The first draft isn’t really directed towards any sort of audience. It’s a proof of concept. It’s the writer talking with himself. Rambling. Or not even that. It’s the writer standing helpless as his words revolt against his ideas. There’s something of a Frankenstein in writing: once you’ve written it, it has a mind of it’s own. The idea can be beautiful. But the words can be ugly. The concept could seem perfect. But the words can prove the concept wrong. In the first draft, the writer is both active and passive. He is active in the sense that he is the one writing. But passive in the sense as he is helpless to where the story takes him.

If proof of concept takes place after the first draft is done, then the writer can proceed to the second draft. Proof of concept means that the words, verbs, and adjectives sort of square with the original idea. There is a congruence between idea and expression. It may not be perfect (and oftentimes is the opposite of perfect), but it works. If proof of concept has not happened, then, well, sorry to say, there is no need to proceed to the second draft. Time to start again. This has happened to me before. It is quite sad.

In the second draft, the writer is writing for an audience. He writes with the benefit of hindsight: he knows where the story is going to go. He can tailor the second draft so that it makes sense to readers. In all likelihood, the first draft just makes sense to the writer. For King, his ideal reader is his wife Tabitha. That’s who he writes the second draft for. My ideal reader is an old friend from grad school. The book is like a conversation or a chess match between us. A bit of agreement and some competition and disagreement as well. But no matter who the second draft is written for, it’s not written by the author for the author. That’s what first drafts are for.

In writing the second draft, the biggest lesson is that writing is just as much a process of destruction as it is of creation. You have to have the courage to throw out everything that doesn’t fit, no matter how much labour you’ve put into it. It’s like spring cleaning. It’s as difficult as throwing out old family heirlooms. But it must be done. Others do it. Of the really focussed and direct books I’ve read, I shudder to think how much writing, rewriting, and pruning must have taken place to achieve crystal clarity. Judging from my own experience, I would say a lot. Or, more than the writer cared to do. That’s probably where good editors come in… To tell the writer to put more fire into his work or put more of his work into the fire…

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work by putting some of my hard work into the fire.

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