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The Four Draft Formula

Some years ago, in a writers’ workshop, I received one of those little gems that subtly but profoundly changes your life. The class instructor quoted British writer Margery Allingham, author of, among others, the Albert Campion mysteries.

When asked by an interviewer how she wrote, she replied (as was quoted to me):

 “I write the first draft to get the meaning. I write the second draft to put in everything that I left out. I write the third draft to take out everything that doesn’t belong, and the fourth draft to make it sound like I just thought of it.”

So simple, so logical, so whimsical, so useful. Using this formula, I know exactly where I am at any given moment. It’s like having a GPS to help me find my location on the road.

Now when I sit down to write a first draft, after sending my inner critic Griselda out for herbal tea or Prozac, I proceed to write for meaning only. Ideas go down in stream of consciousness order, sentences are incomplete, participles dangle and infinitives split. “Just the meaning,” I chant as I scatter my thoughts across the page. Then, when I feel I have enough, I begin the second draft filling in the spaces with absolutely everything that comes to mind that might be useful. No judgements, no distinctions — and definitely no Griselda.

Now I’m ready for the third draft. I summon my internal editor, Sophie, to help analyze what I have written and to make it clean and sharp. Together, we rearrange sentences and move paragraphs, ruthlessly cut and trim, argue over modifiers, and debate the merits of including a particular phrase. If we discover that page three needs expansion, I make a note to return to it when I am in first or second draft mode again. (If Griselda has returned and is making a pest of herself, I send her out for croissants.)

I may write several first, second and third drafts of any given piece, but I always know where I am and I don’t get caught in the illusion that I’m chasing a wild goose or will never be finished. Then, when I sit down to polish and add humor and delight, it is with a sense of freedom and satisfaction.

The Four Draft Formula gives me structure and boundaries, which provide me with a secure environment in which to create. And the combination of creative intelligence and the sweet humor of the heart helps me to have a nice day.

 

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