Composing your first draft - Composing

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Composing your first draft

Many writers - from university professors to fiction and non-fiction writers - do what I have also learnt to do. They gather everything they need to write the first draft - bringing together their plans, notes and any source material - and then they give themselves permission to ’go for it’ in writing the first draft. For many, writing the first draft involves - to some extent - putting critical mind on hold, knowing that this will be engaged, again and again, when the draft is improved.

When I write a first draft, I give myself permission to ’go for it’, knowing that

I am ’getting my ideas down on paper’ and that everything is open to change. I normally write in bursts of 50-90 minutes, then take a break, before returning to write for another block of 50-90 minutes. Like many professional writers, I prefer to write in the morning, getting my composing done by lunchtime. If I have chosen to spend the day on writing-related activities, in the afternoon I might review and edit a recent draft (although not normally what I’d composed that morning). Or I might carry out some literature searching or reading. Or planning. That way, I do not normally spend more than half of the day involved in one type of writing-related activity. This keeps me fresh. I do not become stale from spending too much time on any one activity. I find that many successful university staff and students do something similar. They break up their day with different activities. As we shall see later in this chapter, this contributes to managing the writing process effectively.

Here is an extract from the first draft of Chapter 1 of this book:

Traditionally, most essays have a structure with a clear beginning (introduction), main body (development of an overall argument) and end (conclusion). This is based on the traditional notion of a lecture: tell the audience what you ’re going to talk about, talk about it, and then tell them what you’ve talked about. [Check: Is this based on a rhetorical tradition? How did it originate?]

Notice that I have made notes to myself shown in square brackets [...]. Normally, I do not let such issues or questions stop me composing. I set myself a target for composing a certain number of words, and then if I run into problems I make a note to myself rather than using the problem as an excuse for stopping composing. That said, I do need to make a judgement as to whether the issue is so important it is likely to undermine my whole argument. Usually, as here, problems are much less serious. In any case, many such problems cannot be resolved quickly. For example, to find out about the rhetorical tradition I did some more background reading and spoke to colleagues. Sometimes you may find that your argument is weak and that you have insufficient evidence to back up the claims you are making. This is not something you can quickly resolve by breaking off from your composing.

Here is another first draft extract from Chapter 1, where I marked up repeated words and then posed a question:

A major challenge for many students is to write assignments in an appropriate academic style, with a

suitable structure, that develops an argument in an [appropriate] way. As we shall see later, there is no single kind of academic writing. Unless you are taking a generic, introductory course in writing at university, writing academically usually has a specific disciplinary context. Almost invariably you are writing for a particular audience with a specific purpose in mind and within a [particular] discipline. [Examples?]

I could have chosen to stop composing there and then and make a decision about whether to include examples, and if so, which ones. As it was, I decided to carry on composing and delay the decision. That way, I could see which examples emerged later in the chapter, and I could then choose examples here to complement the later ones.

In writing a first draft, it is quite common to falter, trying to resolve an issue that is best left until later. Resolving the problem may require you to undertake more research, more thinking, or more writing (what you write further on in the document may help resolve the problem you are experiencing now). Often it is a case of returning to your work ’with fresh eyes’. Issues like these are not normally something that stops me composing unless they build up to a critical mass and I have to break off and resolve one or more of them.

There are several reasons why I propose it is helpful for most people, most of the time, to write a first draft fairly rapidly:

1Perfecting sentences as you write your first draft may be an unnecessary expenditure of time and energy. It is only later - after you have written a few paragraphs or a whole section - that you know whether that perfect first sentence you crafted is doing its job. Or you may find that, after reviewing your written argument developed over several paragraphs, the sequence of logic needs to be changed.

2The more time you invest in the first draft, the more reluctant you are likely to be to change what you have written. But making changes - perhaps substantial ones - is exactly what you may need to do. We return to this idea in more detail in Chapter 10.

3Writing the first draft slowly, trying to resolve all the problems as you go, is effectively bringing together parts of the writing process - researching and planning, composing, and reviewing and editing - that might be better kept apart. If you are trying to complete all these actions as you compose, your composing could be slow and jerky. Writing quickly is more likely to clear mental space for ideas to flow.