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A Peek Inside My Writing Process: Rough Drafts & Revisions
Written by
Alissa Johnson
February 2018
Written by
Alissa Johnson
February 2018

When I was home from college, I'd sit at my childhood desk with a blank piece of paper before me, trying to come up with the perfect first sentence for a story. I didn't even know what I wanted to write, but I felt like the perfect first sentence was the key to getting started.

Under that kind of pressure, I didn't get very far. Now I know better.

The secret to writing a first draft is to write as badly as you need to in order to write at all.

I have learned over time that whatever first sentence I write won't end up in the final draft. And that's okay—it's purpose is to get me started, not to get the reader started.

We often talk about this concept in my online courses, and for many writers, it's a game changer. Free of the pressure to write well, they're off and running, following ideas wherever they lead.

Still, I know it can be difficult to let yourself go—to abandon the need for quality prose even when you KNOW that's what revisions are for.

So in one of my workshops, I shared two excerpts from my own writing: the very first draft of something I wrote and what it looked like after some revision. I thought I would share it with you here in the hopes that it demonstrates the way that writing grows over time rather than starting out perfectly.

Very first draft:

Albert seems older than she remembers. She studies his face, looking to pinpoint the reasons why—it is not the lines around his eyes, or those around his mouth, though they do give him a more distinguished look. She can tell that he has spent more time out under the sun, perhaps while conducting research for his thesis, because his face is tanned. It is not the look of someone who has stayed inside all winter. It's more, however, that a youthfulness has been lost. As if his exuberance has been replaced by a more chiseled and resolved nature.

A revision:

Albert appears older than she remembers, so that she cannot stop stealing glances at his profile as they walk from the train station toward Main Street and her Gunnison hotel. There is a line around his mouth, where one would expect a laugh line, and fine lines are forming around the eyes. His skin is tanned, and he has the look of someone who spends a great deal of time outside—perhaps for his PhD research. But it is more the way he’d appeared at the train station with so much reserve, as if his youthfulness had been replaced by a new sort of seriousness. Now that he is walking beside her, hands behind his back, she tries to remember just how long it has been since she saw him last. A little more than a year since their encounter at the Union Depot in Denver, she calculates, and just two years since they last parted ways in Gunnison. He had been twenty-five then, or was it twenty-six? She supposes that whether he is twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old, it is reasonable to look older the closer one gets to thirty. And who knew what he saw when he looked upon her, now at the age of thirty-three.

You can see the differences between them. The original paragraph acted like a placeholder for me, a way to begin sketching out what might happen when. The revision provided a way to fill in the details and draw out more of the story.

The first paragraph was not a failure because it needed to change. It provided a foundation—a place from which I could begin.

What about you? What kinds of differences do you see in your first drafts compared to your revisions? Leave a comment below or find the conversation on the Facebook page.

P.S. Ready for a writing breakthrough? Break free from writing rules that don't work and find your way with my FREE three-part series: Inside the Writers Mind. The first insight (and writing prompt) could be yours today.

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  • Alissa Johnson Writing

    Mary Hansen, letting go of perfection can be a hard one!

  • Mary Hansen

    Thank for the reminder! It is just what I needed to keep moving forward and let go of my notion of perfection out of the gates.

  • Nancy Hinchliff Writing

    Anyone who has been writing any length of time already knows this.

  • Sara Etgen-Baker

    the difference in each revision is huge! Then again, I love revising...I feel like I'm polishing a gem!