Monday, March 12, 2007

In Praise of Ragged Drafts, Or: How Not to Be a Figure Skater

The end of term is nearing. There are a lot of final projects and final exams to deal with, and the deadlines are looming, and the deadlines are, for the most part, final. It's a time of heightened pressure.

It's hard to write under pressure. This is true even for professional writers. They get used to it and they develop strategies for it, but still: it's difficult. Students who have multiple classes, who might have a job as well, and who have various other responsibilities often have more pressure than even a professional writer. So today, we at the Writing Center would like to make a suggestion: Write a quick and ragged and imperfect and weird first draft of that final paper you're having a hard time getting started on.

We know. You have concerns about that. Or you just don't write that way. But hear us out.

First: If you let yourself write a quick, sloppy, ragged first draft, you will feel better on the day that you wrote it. If you stare at the computer screen for two hours and only have two paragraphs to show for it, it's frustrating and you feel like you still have that same writing task, only now you've lost two hours. If you write six ragged pages in two hours, you feel like you've produced some stuff.

Second: It's easier to get back into it when you come back to it again. (And yes, we're suggesting that you come back to it again.) If you come back to two paragraphs, you still have a mostly-empty computer screen in front of you. If you come back to five or six pages, you have a lot of writing there to work with. You can dive in and begin fixing, improving, moving, fine-tuning, and all of that, immediately.

Third: Most of the difference between "strong" writers and "weak" writers is that strong writers revise. They add, cut, move, refine, and correct. If you purposely write a quick and ragged draft that you know you won't turn in, then you know that you will engage in a revision process, as well. Because you have to. But that's good!

Fourth: You have less situational stress, should a "situation" occur. If you have some kind of unforeseen task arise or some other hitch in your plans, you know you at least have a draft of that writing assignment done. In an academic emergency, then, you still have choices. You could turn in your draft and know that although it's ragged, at least you completed the course. Or you could turn it in to your instructor and be able to show that despite your unforeseen stress, you truly HAVE been working on the assignment. (An instructor who can see that you've really been working on something is usually more comfortable granting you an extension than an instructor who can't tell if you've truly been thinking about it or if you're just making an excuse.) Or because you know that you have the ragged draft, you also know that if you suddenly have limited time, you can just clean that up as much as possible as quickly as possible, and be done.

Many student writers report a writing process that is fairly high-stakes: they write one draft, one time through. If something goes wrong in it they think, "Oh well--looks like this isn't going to turn out that great." This is essentially the model of a high-stakes figure skating competition: if the skater falls during the big routine, there's nothing to be done about it. The announcers lament how awful it is that the skater fell, but then speak about how she'll just have to pick herself up and try and go on and complete the routine as well as she can. No chance for gold now!

But writing does not need to be like figure skating. If you stumble through an awkward paragraph in your first draft, you can still go back! You can fix it! Gold is still possible!

If you're stuck, then, or you're staring at the screen, perhaps consider giving yourself permission to just write a ragged first draft. You'll know that the draft will only get better as you work on it more. And you'll be writing.

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