Steam ahead or swing back?
Do you zap out your first draft at the speed of bees, ignoring all faults just to get it down? Or do you move like mud, planning down to every detail and laboring over each word, phrase, and sentence before inching to the next?
Which were you taught was the single, inviolable method? Which makes for more effective writing? Which entices you?
If you feel your usual method is forced or contrary to your real desires, if you distrust the present use of your writing time or energy, if you’ve lost your momentum, or if you suspect you’re stalling in some subtle way, it’s time to look more closely whether you work better steaming ahead or swinging back. (Note: Close relatives you may have heard of are “pantsers,” who steam ahead with little forethought; and “plotters,” who outline and plan before writing. Plotters may also be called, plodders, those who keep swinging back.)
When you steam ahead, you force yourself to write something, whether a paltry paragraph or an overblown, cringeworthy first draft. Jodi Picoult wisely reminds us: “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page” (Kramer, 2006, para. 3).
Whether at white heat or off-gray white, steaming ahead has many advantages:
- You get it while it’s hot. Your excitement is at its highest, so your words, excessive and otherwise, surge out easily.
- You build on your excitement, accelerating momentum.
- You continue moving, sustaining zest for the work.
- As your creative juices flow around the main idea, related ideas surge (write them down!).
- Through the writing itself, you get a better sense of where the work is going.
- You do make progress.
- You get the idea out of your system, your head, and your digestion. If you let a new idea sit, it can burn in your head and gut like a runaway ulcer.
- You save insomnia time. A great idea can be ignored during the day, buried under our merciless to-dos. But at night, our minds, more defenseless, yield to the submerged idea. It keeps knocking until we get up, slit-eyed, and scribble. We can avoid but we can’t hide.
Most writers probably know of Ann Lamott’s famous declaration that all “good writers” write “sh–ty first drafts” (Bird by Bird, 1995, p. 21). She and others advise us to speed ahead—jump in, keep going, and get it done.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley elaborates (in Checkoway, 2001, pp. 244-245):
For real revision to begin, it is essential for the writer to push all the way to the end of the first draft, no matter how awkward the draft seems, for hidden in the rough draft, as rough as it can possibly be, are all the answers to the writer’s questions about the material.
And one more: Author, literary agent, and editor Shawn Coyne (2015) advises:
Don’t read over what you’ve written before when you begin your day’s work. Don’t fix any sentences. Don’t stop and go research to fill in a blank that you do not have the immediate answer for. Make it up and fix it later. Don’t think about anything other than putting what is inside your head onto the page/computer screen. (paras. 2-4)
It’s true that no matter how often you’ve conquered the empty page, screen, or mind, steaming ahead takes guts. You keep facing the terror of the next blank page. This terror may explain why we yield to the temptation to halt, backtrack, and apply obsessive first aid to the sentence we’ve just written. It’s true that we blush at the idiocy of the words in front of us. But at least they’re there.
Two Reasons Not to Steam Ahead for Too Long
On the other hand, after you’ve got a good chunk written, steaming ahead can have drawbacks (as I’ve found to my chagrin):
- Too much can put you in danger of derailing. You go off the track and into foreign abandoned fields, which have little to do with what you’ve been writing. (Unless you find yourself starting another work . . . a dilemma.)
- Too much can make you think you don’t need to think. I’m not denying the place of wind-streaked, Joycean stream-of-consciousness writing, but if you don’t do some thinking early, the lack of coherence won’t disappear. You can dodge but you can’t hide.
Swinging Back as You Go: Days of Thought and Revision
But . . . for some writers, the first draft is almost the last. Kelly Link (Temple, 2017), author of four collections of short stories, explains:
I redraft as I go—whenever I get stuck in a short story, I go back to the beginning and revise my way down to where I left off. Usually I’ve reworked the first couple of pages anywhere from twenty to over 100 times by the time I get to the ending.
Best-selling author Barbara Taylor Bradford admits, “I actually write slowly, so I do very little rewriting on a book. I might take some things out after I write, but once I’m through the first draft, I have a fairly finished product. Working in that way takes a lot of time” (Hayden, 2005, p. 20).
The brilliant Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Rico, 2000) beautifully describes the excitement and art of revising:
What I like to do is treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone
. . . to hew, carve, mould, coil, polish, and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, figures of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly realized truth I must try to reach and realize. (p. 208)
Thinking is at the heart of swinging back. Devoting yourself to days of gray-cell action can yield a bolstering range of benefits:
- You give yourself a respite from new, raw writing.
- If you haven’t looked at the piece for a long time, revisiting it reorients you into the scene and mindset of the work.
- You (miraculously and wincingly) see many things that need improvement, exercising your critical eye.
- Inconsistencies in sequence, structure, or logic leap out at you. These revelations, mortifying as they may be, eliminate the need to rewrite or recheck later—like making sure from Chapter 2 to Chapter 22 the heroine’s philosophy of life or eye color match or change believably.
- When you use your powers of judgment, you gain or regain focus and may even learn what the work is really about. This recognition, of course, is crucial for the next steaming ahead.
- Even if you’re not satisfied with the current version, it’s a step closer to your initial pristine vision of the perfected work and final draft.
- You gain an undeniable sense of accomplishment.
- With this progress, swinging back may—should—keep you excited about the work.
- You keep learning your craft. We can never get enough practice.
I used to detest swinging back, probably because I’d lost that “original urge” and mistakenly thought white heat and thoughtful editing and revision had to be opposites. The words of the authors I quoted helped me reconcile the surface disparity between the creative thrill of steaming ahead and my erroneous perception of the secretarial mundanity of swinging back.
Two Reasons Not to Swing Back for Too Long
Obsessive swinging back, though, like too much steaming ahead, can also have downsides. As the steaming ahead opens the corral gate for the creative wild stallion, swinging back can pen him into a too-tight space:
- You can get so narrowly focused you bog down in minutiae. Your squinting eyes burn, and you ponder as if the universe hinges on whether a comma should come next, or not.
- You can use the faultless rationale that you’re “writing.” Granted, writing may be largely rewriting, but too much swinging back is like doing a college paper. You spend 98 percent of your time reading and taking notes, convincing yourself you’re thinking and writing. But all you’re really doing is reading and taking notes. Endlessly fiddling with your current work almost indefinitely puts off your plunge into the icy pool of new writing.
What Works for You?
With all these pros and cons, which I hope haven’t confused you, you may be able to gauge better which works for you. Sometimes steaming ahead provides loose-shirt relief from brain-wrenching close editing. Sometimes swinging back gives welcome reprieve from galloping thoughts.
Listen more closely to your writing guide within, and you’ll recognize its nudges at different times toward either mode. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Each approach serves you at different writing phrases to produce a finished work that fulfills your creative urging, satisfies your critical eye, and nourishes your soul.
Coyne, S. (2015). The first draft. Retrieved from https://stevenpressfield.com/2015/03/the-first-draft/
Hayden, G. K. (2005). An unexpected blessing. Writing basics: A beginner’s guide to
writing. Writers Digest Guides.
Kramer, M. J. (2006). Jodi Picoult: You can’t edit a blank page. NPR; WLRN, Novel
Ideas. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6524058
Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. Pantheon.
Rico, G. (2000). Writing the natural way. Tarcher/Putnam.
Smiley, J. (2001). What stories teach their writers: The purpose and practice of revision. In J. Checkoway (Ed.), Creating fiction: Instructions and insights from teachers of the associated writing programs (pp. 244-255). Story Press.
Temple, E. (2017).12 contemporary authors and how they revise. Lit Hub. Retrieved from https://lithub.com/12-contemporary-writers-on-how-they-revise/
© 2020 Noelle Sterne
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her second novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com