The Beauty in Discarded Drafts

The files stacked in the photo have a story to tell you. This paper testament shows how I’ve spent a significant number of evening and weekend hours for more than two years. They’re not going into the next draft of my novel, but these discards also don’t belong in the recycling bin.

Learning to write fiction – for this full-time business writer and editor – generates a lot of extra words, and these drafts represent only the edited versions of my first attempts at fiction. After writing 10,000 or 30,000 or 50,000 words, I would pause for a few weeks to create some distance and objectivity before diving into the revision process. I’ve posted about how I’d find some beautiful sentences I didn’t remember writing, and others that made me laugh with their clumsiness. (I didn’t remember writing most of those either.)

What I tell myself about these unusable drafts will fuel another new beginning.

1. Every draft represents learning in action.

Whether we keep our early attempts or not, every creative act teaches us something. Each page is a monument to the energy I put into learning a new craft, and, like many other activities such as painting and drawing, improving our writing requires action. Application builds proficiency.

You can’t read about how to ride a bicycle and then fault yourself for not having the balance and coordination required to travel down the street with your new wheels.

2. Shared experiences are built into every draft.

Spending time with other creatives who have similar goals can keep us accountable, and I’m encouraged by conversations with other writers as well as attending the lectures and book signings offered by established authors. Although application is required, tips help. The diversity of recommended techniques reminds me experimentation is a necessary part of creating something new.

As I’ve written in a previous post, adult learners like the concept of “best practices.” We want to know there’s one right way to do something new, and we want to know exactly what that is. Learning there is not just one way to write a book is both comforting and challenging to any author-in-training.

3. Even unfinished drafts are “complete,” as milestones.

Here’s some folk wisdom: “Don’t look back; you’re not heading that way.” In general, I agree. And yet, without glancing back for a moment, we can’t see how far we’ve come. Paper shows my progress in a tangible way. Every file on my computer looks the same size at a glance, and counting words or kilobytes doesn’t give me the same satisfaction as lifting a plastic file box.

I like the weight of paper, its heft and dimension, and I’m not alone. In this June 2016 presentation, Working in the Age of Distraction, author Jocelyn Glei explains “completion bias,” the way humans naturally seek the internal rewards of completing a task. (Think about the progress bars your computer feeds you when you’re waiting for something to load or update.) She has a photo of her own paper manuscript in the video, and she recommends setting milestones for your creative process.

Every draft taught me more about fiction and about myself. And my life has taught me many things I can apply to this new craft, including this: I can begin again, and again…and again.