My local library carries a copy of The Secret Miracle, an edited collection of author interviews about the writing craft. I have no intention of reading the book from cover to cover, but I spent an hour late last week exploring the writing routines of a diverse array of successful authors.
And what I learned, surprised me.
I have written before about the dangers of romanticizing writing. The process is messy and hard. Yet, I often assume that all successful authors have type A personalities with strict writing routines. The Secret Miracle pokes holes in the common writing advice that I’ve encountered on AuthorTube or in the writing blogosphere.
True, most of the authors interviewed treat writing as a job with fixed hours, but they don’t all write everyday. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that few authors follow their outlines to a T or rush first drafts. Ultimately, the only “secret miracle” to writing is perseverance.
How long does it take you to finish a draft?
Rodrigo Fresán: I don’t write thinking about a first draft. I edit all the time while writing. Because the first finished version is the only one (and maybe it is the tenth or twentieth draft).
Like Fresán, I edit as I write. I used to be ashamed of my slow writing speed, but many authors, it seems, take ages to produce a polished “first” draft.
How polished do you try to make the prose in a first draft?
Susan Minot: Pretty well polished. Though I do line edit afterward. But the polish is the difference between good writing and average writing.
Claire Messud: Doesn’t everyone always try to write as well as they can, at any given moment? I can’t imagine not caring, whatever draft I’m dealing with. It’s a matter of aesthetics, as much as anything – infelicities, it seems to me, should be deliberate, not a matter of inattention; because they mean something too.
Do you outline? If so, how closely do you follow it?
Andrew Sean Greer: I write a very careful outline and then abandon it halfway through. It is always a difficult moment for me, but of course I know that it is crucial to follow the way the story has grown, even if it means leaving the road and bushwacking my way to the end.
I always have a detailed outline before I start writing an academic paper, but I realize soon enough that my outline contains massive holes. I often produce three or four different outlines while writing my so-called first draft.
If, like me, you spend ages writing a first draft because you don’t always know what you want to say or you are not satisfied with sloppy writing, take heart! You’re not alone. There is no one ideal writing process. Don’t be discouraged by the writing advice you find in self-help books; they work for some people but not for everyone. Find what works for you, and go with that. As long as you reach the finish line, it doesn’t matter that you write slower than your colleagues.