How long do you spend on your first draft? You might be surprised to learn that it could be more efficient to spend less time on drafting and longer on other aspects of your writing.
I recently took part in a Royal Literary Fund ‘Writing with Confidence’ workshop for authors, and one highlight was a planning, writing and editing exercise. In the workshop, we were asked to complete a short piece of writing on how our creative work had changed over the last year. The task was broken down into three parts:
- Make notes
- Write the first draft
- Edit the text
1 Make notes
In the first part, we simply jotted down ideas. Because I was in a workshop, I used bullet points, but usually I’m a big fan of sticky notes. Other people made lists or created mind maps. Some of my bullet points were sentences; some were just single words. When I’d finished writing my notes, I went through them, numbering the points in the order I wanted to express them.
2 First draft
I found it quite easy to get going on the writing, given that my notes were clear and numbered. In real life, I have a tendency to rush into the writing before I have really organised my thoughts. But on this occasion, because I had already made a rudimentary plan, I was clear about what I wanted to say.
In the final section, we concentrated on improving the overall structure and individual sentences and then checking that the text was appropriate for our intended audience. Finally, we proofread our work for grammar, punctuation and typos.
Timing for each stage
During the workshop, these were the proportions of time allocated to each stage:
- Planning – six minutes (30%)
- Writing – four minutes (20%)
- Editing – ten minutes (50%).
These proportions may seem surprising — especially that writing the first draft only takes up one-fifth of the time. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that the editing stage accounts for half of the process.
I was certainly struck by this information. I knew editing was important, but because this exercise demonstrated the balance in a precise way, I think I understood it properly for the first time. Spending time at the planning stage will automatically make the second stage easier. Editing is the part that takes the most time and effort, to ensure the finished piece of writing is the very best that it can be.
Undergraduate and Masters students can adopt this approach by dividing up their writing assignments into three stages.
This is the first reflective stage where you think about the content and structure of your writing. You will already have done a lot of reading and made extensive notes. Now is the time to organise them into a plan.
Everyone has their own method of making a plan, such as using bullet points, mind maps or tables. I prefer sticky notes because you can move them around to determine the best order for your points. And if you use different-coloured notes, you can also organise them by theme.
Whatever method you prefer, spend time on making a coherent structure. Don’t be tempted to start writing until you have finished this part of the process.
If you have done the preliminary planning work, it will be much easier to start writing. But remember, this is just a rough draft to get your ideas down. There is no need at this stage to pay close attention to grammar, punctuation or academic writing style.
This is the second reflective stage, where you check your content and structure, and whether the material is appropriate for your audience. The target audience in this case is usually your tutor, so your writing needs to be in formal academic style:
- Authoritative — supported with evidence and examples, correctly referenced
- Coherent — with no rambling or repetitive content
- Clear — with strong sentences that contain one idea and express it well
- Accurate — with no grammar, punctuation or spelling errors
- Well-presented — make sure the text looks good on the page, with no careless changes of font, for example.
Take your time
Since editing may represent around half of the time you spend on your work, you don’t need to do it all in one go. It is quite normal to write a second and third draft for a student assignment, and professional writers would expect to complete many more.
Have a break after your final edit. Then revisit your writing with fresh eyes and proofread it.
Thanks to workshop facilitator and RLF Fellow Caroline Sanderson, I am now a great advocate of the 30–20–50 approach. It really works for me — try it out!
27 May 2021
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