I used to write my papers on an old Hewlett-Packard word processor. It had a little tiny memory disk that was about half the size of a hard “floppy” disk, although I don’t think those existed at the time. It was a Christmas gift or a birthday gift from my parents during my last year of high school. I used it through my first 5 years of university, so about 1989-1994. It had a little tiny computer screen which allowed me to see about 6 lines at a time. It could be used like an electric typewriter as well. But I liked that I was able to save my writing to these little disks and when I wanted to print something, it auto typed it out like a regular typewriter would at about 80 to 100 words per minute.
Back then I always hand-wrote the first drafts of my papers. I liked to be able to see a page worth of work at a time and manually flip back and forth between those pages. One hand written page, roughly, worked out to be just short of one double spaced, 12pt font, typed page of writing. After I finished the first handwritten draft (where I edited little), I used to type the paper into the word processor and then do all my editing there. The act of typing out what I had written allowed me time to reflect upon some of that first draft uglies and where I needed to make global changes. Thus, I’ve always believed that the real writing happens in editing.
I wrote my papers using this process through two university degrees and continued to handwrite rough drafts even when I retired the HP and began using Microsoft Word on a PC. Then sometime during the first year of my master’s degree I started writing papers directly into the computer. Papers got harder to write, at that level, and I found I couldn’t write anything in any planned order any more. Also, with 40 references to incorporate, I could no longer write an entire paper in a single day. It was easier to put a heading into a computer file and leave a blank than it was to guess how much of a blank to leave on looseleaf to accommodate what needed to be said.
I presented at a conference this year and while it really had nothing to do with my presentation, someone asked me if writing processes had changed in the era of computers. I had been talking about a well-known writing process theory that was developed in the 70s that still seems very relevant today, even though fewer people likely handwrite their drafts than would have been common back then.
Now that I write solely on a computer, I still write a pretty rough first draft but I edit as I write more than I used to. Autocorrect helps with my clunky spelling skills. But it is still always my goal to get a sketch of what I want to say down in writing and then work my magic while editing. I consider my first drafts so rough, that I would never show a first draft to anyone…. not even co-authors. I always like to let a manuscript germinate for a while. A week is awesome, if I have it, but 2 days is often enough before I tackle the next draft. I spend the time between reflecting on what I wrote and things I forgot to say. I look for ways to solidify my argument or make connections between points I may not have seen the first time around.
I’ve heard of these strange creatures who obsess over every word in a sentence and write a clean rough draft that needs nothing more than a polish. I am not one of them. And to be honest, I don’t envy them. It would be painful writing that would make me feel like the end was so far away. I believe the key to being prolific is to spew it all out in one shot as quickly and as horribly (or not so horribly) as possible. If you aren’t solid on your thinking in some areas, what you write later may be a clue to how to fix it. I’ve written articulate phrases like ….. and blah blah blah prediction …. into my papers just to remind me what I need to learn more about when I come back and edit that section. Sometimes you have to stop and read more to figure out what comes next.
And that is one thing that has never changed about my writing process. I love revisions. I have always worked better building off an existing idea than staring at a blank page hoping that words will come. A done first draft feels like a finished paper to me because I know how it begins, I know how it ends, and now I can fill in the holes with what I believe to be the best part of writing: rewriting.
Having said that, you need to write the way you write. It isn’t wrong to be a multi draft writer. It also isn’t wrong to write each sentence as if you’ll never have to change it. Just write.
*Image: some really bad fiction writing I did when I was about 20. I remember going back and doing the highlighting. It was the only parts I liked. (My attempts at fiction, back then, never made it to the word processor phase of writing).