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bear by san

March 2017



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comic tick ninjas hedge

i killed a man for flora, the lily of the west

My least favorite writing advice today is the old "cut your first drafts by 10-15%" canard, which seems to be making another round.

You know what? It's great advice for some writers, with some stories. But like all one-size-fits-all advice, it actually doesn't necessarily fit most very well.

Me, for example. My first drafts tend to grow by 10-20% on redraft, because I tend to write my first drafts without things like transitions, exposition, dialogue, dramatization, and setup for thematic developments. They're more or less nothing except plot and character development, and all the other stuff gets put in later. I also have to insert white space a lot of the time, because at novel length extremely dense narrative becomes exhausting, and that's what I naturally tend towards.

My earliest decent short stories were all around 1500-3000 words. It wasn't until I learned to unpack those, to get the interesting bits out of my head and trust that I wasn't going to make them boring by explaining them, to write them at 5000-7000 words for the same sorts of ideas, that they started selling well and attracting positive comment.

I've several times shown my students the first draft of "Shoggoths in Bloom" as well as the published version. The story won a Hugo in its longer, published version. The first draft was largely opaque and hasty, and I know this for a fact, because I took it to Sycamore Hill and sat in a room while a dozen of my colleagues told me exactly how much of it was incomprehensible twaddle.

(Not always: sometimes I need to cut things. But it's incredibly rare for that to happen, and feel free to ask my editors.)

In my experience as a teacher of writing--going on ten years of it now--this is true for a good third of my students, as well. Some of whom have struggled extensively because of this advice, which gets parroted around as if it were true for everyone, all the time.

It's not. Just as the advice to "expand that--dramatize that--explain that better" is not true for everyone all the time.

(In point of fact, I suspect that there are no generally applicable answers even for particular writers. Sometimes we'll overwrite, and sometimes we'll underwrite, and experience and good editors will eventually teach us which is which.)

The trick is not to apply some magic metric like "Oh, cut 10% of everything you write." The trick is to learn what information is necessary and what information is not, and provide the former--and as much of the latter as is entertaining and fun.


Thank you for saying that.

I had writing teachers in school recommend blind cutting--when my writing (fiction, non-fiction) was so dense as to be incomprehensible unless you already knew what the subject was. Instead I took to rewriting papers by adding a sentence between each existing sentence that explained what I'd just said, with a tremendous positive impact on how the writing was received (and graded).

It'd be neat if higher-level processes got more publicity--e.g., instead of "cut 10%", the more heuristic approach of "write the first draft, add words until it makes sense to someone other than you; then iteratively remove bits until it stops making sense; then go back one revision".

This is sometimes taught to technical writers, but doesn't fit well in a tweet...
That advice turns me into the world's largest land crab. :)
...moving sideways along a never-ending beach?

There are other heuristics, too--and so perhaps the really important bit is, as you say, not to take any of this advice "as if it were true for everyone, all the time."
I'm curious about the concept of "adding white space," because this sounds like the sort of thing I would benefit from if I'm taking your meaning correctly (if a novel is a meatloaf, your first pass is all ground beef/turkey and seasoning, and the white space is the bread crumbs to fill it out and fluff it up?)

i find myself reluctant to add words just to add words, but, still being new-ish to the craft, it's entirely possible that what i view as superfluous might truly be necessary for readers outside of my brainmeats.

i like this suggestion, but it seems to make our hostess change species in alarming ways... :)
It's not a panacea; it's something that was useful for me as a bridge toward writing that left fewer important bits out. Perhaps you could try it and see if it helps for your writing...

Edited at 2015-05-17 08:54 pm (UTC)
It must be why Procrustean beds are so popular! One size does fit all!
And that is why you are a Very Good Editor.

Finding one's own characteristic errors is important in other parts of life, too, but I think it comes up more often in a profession that doesn't have verifiable exact right answers. Also, people get so excited that they've found solutions to their giant problems that they evangelize--even more so if those problems have felt intractable. But still: doesn't work, best to qualify these statements.
It occurs to me that if you preface that with 'Don't be afraid to...', it is much better advice. Because you might not have to cut that much (or anything). But you might need to and that's scary for novice writers.
Pretty sure the only truly universal writing advice I've ever seen is "do whatever results in you producing a good story at the end."

Anything else, applied as one-size-fits-all, is likely to be wrong. What is right for one writer may be wrong for another; what is right for one story may be wrong for another; what is right for one stage in your career may be wrong for another.
When I first started to write, I never put in the character's motivations for the first draft because I never knew what motivated them until I had written the entire story out and looked at it whole. . . that expanded it.
My first drafts tend to grow by 10-20% on redraft,

Me too. If anything, 10-20% can be an underestimate -- my next novel out the gate grew by nearly 30% from first to final draft.

I guess the most important lesson to learn is "there's no one true way to write". Every writer is different and every story is also different and requires a different technique, unless it's deliberately written to formula (in which case -- speaking solely for myself -- meh).

Edited at 2015-05-17 06:18 pm (UTC)
*Thank* you for this. I had to learn to add stuff before my writing started making sense to a single person but me, and that advice twisted me in knots.
About a third of my first drafts need to be pared down a good 20%, while the rest needs expanding/dramatizing/explaining. At least, at novel length -- short stories, it's mostly building out from the scaffolding. The padded parts are almost always places where I and the characters are floundering around, trying to figure out what comes next.

Any advice makes an assumption about the nature of the problem you're trying to solve. If the advice is being offered as general advice, it's bad advice if it doesn't state that assumption. Because even if the advice is assuming the most common problem, there will be people who do not have that problem but have different problems, even opposite problems, where different, perhaps even opposite advice would apply.

I notice that failure to state the assumption most often in writing advice and relationship advice.
Even though I write nothing but fanfic, I notice that my stories expand on each draft. My first draft is more-or-less straight plot outline with occasional scraps of dialogue -- or else it's straight dialogue with no description. The things that turn it into a story other people can read and enjoy all have to be added after I've got the basic structure on the page. Yeah, sometimes I have to cut things too, but that's much rarer than needing to expand.
This is good to hear.

People always ask me why my first drafts are so short because, "don't I have to cut?" and I never do.

Add, expand, rearrange; sure, but cut, almost never.

It's just one of those things like "show don't tell" or "kill your darlings" that is parroted at new writers so often without actually unpacking what is meant, and explaining how it's not always the right solution to a story's issues.
First of all: I really like Crooked Still! :) The blog title jumped out at me.

Secondly: THANK YOU for this post. I am an aspiring author, but I do find that I tend to have to go back on my next drafts to add in more "meat" sometimes. Of course I could be doing it all wrong because I've never had a professional editor, but *shrugs*