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SLANT LETTER: The Real Secret to Rough Drafts
The Real Secret to Rough Drafts
In our last letter, I wrote about in your rough draft, but I learned something about this word since then that is worth sharing.
We often say “amateur” with a slight eyebrow raise of disdain—someone who has a lesser talent, lesser experience, lesser promise or prestige. But this word’s origins set the record straight. “Amateur” is derived from a French word simply meaning “lover of.”
Being an amateur has nothing to do with ability; it has everything to do with motivation. Amateur means simply “one who loves.”
And when love is your engine, it’s hard to go wrong.
So I’d like to make a motion: let’s be shameless amateurs. Let’s show up to the page with fierce love for words, for beauty, for truth, for stories and the way they shape us. Let’s show up for love of incarnation and let that guide all else. “Pro” has nothing to do with it. You’re here because you have passion. Let’s allow love to lead us from here [tweet this].
In our last letter together, we cleared the deck of the sparkle draft myth and the self-doubt we bring to the blank page. This is the inner work of rough-drafting (and love drives it all!). But what about the physical, tangible work of pen to paper after that? That’s what I’d like to explore in this letter: the nitty gritty of how, in rough draft redux fashion. So let’s get technical and tactical. Here are a few things I’ve found to help.
Read Widely and Read First
I don’t know about you, but I can’t write a single word until I’ve first read a hundred. I start by hunting and gathering, rounding up good sources, scraps of inspiration wherever they can be found. This gives yourself raw material to begin with: you build up a storehouse, and then you go rummaging.
Inventory Your Questions
“Write what you know” is generally good advice, but I fear it’s often misunderstood to mean we have to know what we think before we start writing. But where’s the curiosity, the exploration, in that?
A better place to start is by taking inventory of what you don’t know by listing your most burning questions about your subject. Do this in reverse and writing risks becoming propaganda. Write first for discovery, not didactics [tweet this].
By this simple exercise of writing out your questions, you will transform the tyranny of the blank page into a map with endless possibility. Now you can get exploring.
Craft a Go-To Template
Sometimes getting the bones right where you can see them helps the rest fill in. A template ensures you don’t have to start from scratch every single time. I like to keep mine ridiculously simple: intro, angle, support for your angle, outro. Viola! Now you no longer have total white space. It always gets easier from here.
Fire Your Inner Critic
This spring I scribbled notes as fast as I could while hearing from Barbara Brown Taylor, who offered this fantastic advice for evicting your inner critic. First, give her a name. Write her a nice letter thanking her for her services, then generously give her the week off. Throw a $50 bill out the door after her and tell her to go buy herself a new pair of shoes. Slam the door with some satisfaction and now you can get back to work.
Create a Word Garden
Whether in a notebook or an iPhone note, create a space just for that stellar word or perfect turn-of-phrase you picked up somewhere. Keep them, save them up, and spend them at will. A word garden makes for good kindling. Then when you’re stuck, you might read back through it for inspiration. Who knows what might spark?
Start by Reading What you Wrote Yesterday
If you start here, by reading and editing yesterday’s work, you’re bound to make progress. And progress empowers us to keep going and carry our momentum even further.
Keep a Misc List
Don’t know where a line or idea belongs? A misc list serves as the perfect catch-all. It can also serve as a time-out, which is author Sarah Arthur’s brilliant tip, as a far more relaxed and less murderous alternative to “killing your darlings.” Just airlift those iffy parts to your misc list for a while, and see if you miss them or if you can indeed let them go.
Write the Next True Sentence
Hemingway always had a way of turning the complex suddenly simple, which we see in his classic writing advice: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Do not look left or right. Do not posture. Do not write to imitate someone else’s voice. Do not cater or hold back based on who might be reading.
You have one job: tell the truth. Line by line. And never underestimate how so small a thing can be so noble [tweet this]. That’s the work. This is how you flex your creative muscles, develop your voice, and this, ultimately, is the proving ground where your slant is born.
Things that Help
It will always be hard work to press into our very nerve, the live wire of our most inner being, and tell the truth [tweet this]. Writing is too sacred a work for early drafts to be a breeze. There should be struggle and sweat. And there will be days when it will all feel wrong, every syllable and serif. But when you keep at it and finally push into creative breakthrough, you realize the rough draft messes you made are what got you there.
Coffee helps. I actually read an article recently with the straight-faced imperative to “avoid sugar and caffeine.” Hahahah I wouldn’t do that to you.
Comparing notes with each other helps. And I’d love to hear yours! What best tips and tricks for rough drafting did I miss here? Hit reply here or tag #slantletter on Twitter or Instagram to share the wealth.
And it always helps to know that all writers feel the difficulty of this process. Or for the golden few who don't, as Anne Lamott says, we never liked them very much anyway.
Until next time,
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
P.S. // A Prayer for Writers
SLANT LETTER is for the craft and soul of what you do as a writer. So for each issue, I want to focus on an element of the craft as well as a prayer for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk. I hope this will refresh you as it does for me. Read it, print it, share it, and I hope you find some encouragement here.