Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Secrets of Successful Drafting

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Secrets of Successful Drafting

Article excerpt

RACE CAR DRIVERS figured the strategy out decades ago. Slip in behind the car directly ahead and relax while the other driver sucks you along in a bubble of low pressure. When the time is right, break out of your pocket and push on through to the finish.

It's called "drafting."

Productive writers follow similar tactics, thereby avoiding the ordeal many of us face every time we agonize our way through a first draft.

You can spot them in any newsroom. They charge through big projects with scarcely a wrinkle in their foreheads. Their byline counts often put their plodding neighbors to shame. They turn in drafts fairly close to the assigned length. And their copy flows with a pleasing, conversational rhythm.

Somehow they've learned what both experts and academics say is the secret to successful drafting -- operating with a split personality. They have one mindset when they're getting through a first draft. But they adopt a completely different approach when they go back to polish the copy into finished form.

The experts say that the happiest, most productive writers approach their rough drafts as a literary version of Mr. Hyde. They cast civilized restraint aside, letting an uninhibited process of creation carry them quickly through the first version of the story. They don't stop. They don't revise. They don't look back. They push relentlessly forward, seldom even consulting their notes as they rough out the first version of the story.

Only when they're finished with the draft do they slip back into a Dr. Jekyll persona. Then they sweat each detail, checking facts for accuracy, revising sentences for rhythm and scrutinizing words for precise meaning. They're more like meticulous race mechanics than go-for-broke drivers.

Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Baker heartily endorses this Hyde-and-Jekyll process. "What I am asking you to do,' he said in his book, News Thinking, "is to become selectively schizophrenic. I am asking you to shift gears 'after you finish typing and before you start editing"

Bill Blundell, the former Wall Street Journal writing coach, draws the same distinction. "The storyteller" he says, "selectively becomes two people as he works. The first is the sensitive artist-creator, the second a critic who savages every weakness in the creation."

The research backs up the experts. Two Harvard psychologists,V. A. Howard and J.H. Barton, summarize existing studies with the observation that drafting involves "intuition, imagination, risk-taking, a headlong plunge down new corridors of thought and experience. …

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