20 September 2014

Between Aha! and the P.O.

A topic that seems to come up regularly, in our local writers' group, is the differences in the way we writers choose to work, in creating and marketing our fiction. 

Much has also been said at this blog, about that. Outlining vs. not outlining, writing in first person vs. third, simultaneous submissions vs. one-at-a-time, writing in past tense vs. present, literary vs, genre, self-publishing vs. traditional, and so on. And I always enjoy hearing about the quirks of famous writers: Hemingway's preference for writing while standing up, Erle Stanley Gardner dictating his stories to an assistant, Elmore Leonard writing longhand on a yellow legal pad, Eudora Welty's need to be sitting in a certain place when she wrote the end to a story, etc. Understandably, everyone has his/her own unique methods and preferences.

As for me, every short story I sell involves five steps:
  1. I get an idea (aha!)
  2. I put the story together in my head (pre-plotting)
  3. I write it (first draft)
  4. I re-write it (edits and subsequent drafts)
  5. I submit it (either via the SEND key or via the Post Office)
I think steps 2 and 4 are the most fun, and number 2 usually takes more time than any of the others. (What can I say?--I'm an outliner, and for short stories the outlining is done in my mind, beforehand.) But for today's column I'd like to focus on steps 3 and 4, the part between the thinking and the mailing. Putting this in question form, what do you feel is the best process for creating and editing drafts? Even more specifically, should you type and/or revise onscreen, or on paper?

Ballpoint vs. fingertips

Here are some of the arguments I've heard.


- It can be done anywhere and anytime, at home or away, inside or out, as long as you have a pad of paper and a pen.

- Proofreading and revising should be done using a printed copy because it's easier to catch errors that way.

- Over time, reading pages onscreen can be harder on the eyes than reading printed pages. 


- Typing it straight into the computer saves time because you don't have to write it twice (transcribe what you've already written on paper).

- Editing onscreen is easier than on paper: quick corrections/additions/deletions, the ability to move blocks of text around, etc.

- It's cheaper since it requires no paper and no printer ink.

I should mention here that compromise is sometimes a good thing. Maybe you'd prefer to type your rough draft onscreen, then print it out and do your proofing/edits/rewriting on the hardcopy version. Or vice versa.

Production notes

Personally, I've changed the way I do things. When I first started writing short stories for publication twenty years ago, I almost always did rough drafts in longhand in a spiral notebook, and usually while sitting in our backyard swing or in my recliner. I sometimes even did the first round of corrections on that same hardcopy, and typed it into the computer only when the story was pretty much done. It was a long, slow ordeal. Word-processing programs then did less than they do now, but I still didn't take full advantage of their capabilities.

Eventually, as the years passed, I found myself doing rough drafts on paper and then immediately typing them into the computer. I then did all my rewrites onscreen, never printing the story out until it was finished and ready to submit to a publication. NOTE: Until fairly recently, there were few markets that accepted electronic submissions; it was all done with paper, stamps, envelopes, SASEs, and trips to the P.O.

Now, an older and (hopefully) wiser writer, I seldom print out my stories at all, unless they are to be submitted via snailmail. I compose the rough draft onscreen, do all my corrections and editing onscreen, and then either submit the story via e-mail or via an online submission website like those at AHMM and EQMM. Paper is never involved, before, during, or after.

But I confess that there are still times when I prefer working with a hardcopy. For years now, I've served as a judge for a number of fiction-writing competitions, and I always ask the folks running the contests to make copies of their printed submissions and snailmail them to me for judging. Why? Because it truly is easier, and even faster, for me to read dozens of manuscripts if they're printed instead of electronic. It's just easier on my eyes. I also prefer having the students in my writing classes give me double-spaced hardcopies of their stories for critique. They're not only easier to read that way, they're easier to mark with corrections and suggestions.

I should also mention (this is a bit off the subject) that there are some writers--although I personally know only one--who edit as they go, making corrections online to everything they've written that day, so that when they're done with their story or novel, whether it's four pages long or four hundred pages long, they're done. Finished. No rewriting. I have trouble even imagining such a thing. In fact I do the exact opposite. I always write a rough (translate that as pitiful) draft of the whole project first, whether it's four pages long or four hundred pages long, and only after that draft is finished do I go back and edit it. Several times. My reasoning is that sometimes I find myself changing the plotline--or the characters, or the POV--in midstream, and if you do that, the process of editing "as you go" becomes a huge timewaster, because you wind up having to go back and change things that you previously edited and had thought were completed. Oh well--to each his own. As Robert Duvall said in a recent movie, "Am I right, or Amarillo?"

Questions for the Draft board

If you're a writer, you've been through the processes. What's your method? Do you write everything on the computer, from the get-go? Do you write drafts first in longhand and then transcribe? Do you edit offscreen, or onscreen? Does anyone do as I do, and rarely print anything out? Do you find it's easier to read a printed manuscript than to read one onscreen? Do you feel you have to use a printout to do effective editing and revisions? Do you edit as-you-go, or only afterward?

Okay, I'm done. I wish I could tell you this column required no corrections and no re-writing. I'll tell you this, though: I've not yet printed it out.

Maybe I should have …


  1. John, my progression from by-hand rough draft to everything done on the computer has essentially been just like yours. I do, however, prefer to work from a printed copy of anyone else's writing that I review or edit. It's easier and feels less like work. Plus, if it's novel length, I can read it while waiting at doctors' offices.

  2. Ditto, Fran. These days a ream of paper lasts me a long time. Years ago, I went through one pretty fast.

  3. Okay, well I won my first short story award in 1989, so I was writing BEFORE there were word processors! Stone age. We considered the correctable typewriter a pretty big invention.

    But yes - I immediately switched to computers in the 90s, and I write direct to keyboard.

    And Fran, I teach writing at college, and I feel the same about correcting on paper. I spend so much time on computer for my own writing, that the last thing I want is to read on computer.

  4. Melodie, I'm with you--I started writing before word processors also (I only started submitting about the time computers came onto the scene). So I share your pain, regarding typewriters (correctable or not). I'm not sure I could do that anymore.

    And yes, I also think correcting/critiquing students' work is far easier using paper than trying to do it onscreen.

  5. I began writing before computers and pretty much wrote all of my drafts on a typewriter. I'm not a particularly fast typist, hate to retype anything I've already drafted, and so learned to write clean drafts of my stories on the first pass through the typewriter. I even sold many of them.

    I still work in a similar manner, drafting everything at the keyboard (and, now, even drafting some things on my cell phone), only now I futz around a bit more, writing scenes out of order and the like because i can easily manipulate things on screen. For many years my first printout was my final draft, and off it went to an editor.

    That's changed the past few years. I now often print a hardcopy and give my paper ms. a final proofreading. I'm finding errors that I hadn't found while reading on screen. I don't know if it's because I've gotten sloppier in my on-screen drafts or I've become pickier in what I consider acceptable.

    And, while the above describes my usual method of writing, there are exceptions. Occasionally I write a story in an unfamiliar genre or I attempt something outside my comfort zone. Those stories sometimes get several paper drafts that I work over with a pen before making corrections and changes onscreen. Thus, the usual way I work isn't the only way I work.

  6. Michael, it's always interesting to me to hear a writer describe his work process, and even more so when that someone's as prolific as you are. I too have found that I'm more likely to print out a draft for revision if I'm writing something different (a story that's either very long or in another genre).

  7. I will dip my toes into this pool of writers and ask if anyone creates on a tablet? I've also read of a couple people (Gen-whatever they are called nowadays) who create mini-novelettes on their cellphone.

    Typewriters and carbon paper were my beginnings. Put all the material in stacks (and in the order I would use them) around my desk, take 10 or so minutes to think up a hook for the first paragraph then start typing away; only pausing to pick up material to reference as I plugged along.

    I venture back and forth nowadays between keyboard and legal pad - whatever suits my fancy and many times depending on where I am at the time. I've also been known to pull out those magazine subscription cards from magazines in a doctors office if an idea came to me and use them as my mini-notepad.

    When it comes to correcting student papers, my preference is typewritten as middle school penmanship (at least a decade or so ago) was a mystery in itself to decipher!

  8. I suspect those who write one draft only– the final– are like Microsoft when they let their users catch their errors. I bet it’s the poor editors who are burdened with making it all look good.

    I used to scratch out my stories on a legal pad and then type them into the computer. I don’t recall exactly the day I stopped doing that, but there was one big advantage in that it provided a chance to rethink, reedit, and revise as the data was entering the machine.

  9. Bradley, I have most definitely not created any stories using my iPad. I have enough trouble with a fullsized keyboard and screen. And yes, I do remember my old Underwood typewriter and carbon paper, although that's like recalling a bad dream. Thank God computers and word processing programs made it onto the scene before I tried submitting anything to publications.

    I too have made impromptu notes on whatever might be handy, when ideas strike me--the problem there is that sometimes I can't locate my notes later. As for your final comment, Heaven help me if I had to correct/critique anything written by my students in cursive.

  10. Leigh, you bring up a good point: some writers do consider the act of transcribing their handwritten drafts into the computer as their first chance to edit/revise/rewrite. So the transcription in itself becomes your second draft, and somehow seems like less of a waste of time.

    And I think you're right, about those first-draft-is-the-final-draft stories. I can't help believing that the publication's editor is indeed the one who has to do the rewriting. If he/she accepts the story at all.

  11. My favorite is step 2. HItchcock said he would get the movie perfect on storyboards and then actors would come in and ruin it. I feel the same way: the story is perfect before I start actually writing. The damned words ruin it.

    I usually tyoe the first dradft on the computer, then print and revise on paper. Retype, print, revise, rinse and keep repeating, for months.

  12. Rob, I do enjoy the process of planning the story out beforehand, and I'm always a little surprised to hear how many writers don't do that detailed mapping-out of the story before they start writing. I think if I tried that, I would never be able to produce a marketable, or even meaningful, story. Different strokes, right?

  13. Leigh and John, how many drafts a story goes through is no indication of quality or publishability. I have sold stories written on a typewriter where the first draft was the only draft and seen them published with little or no editorial changes/corrections.

    On the flip side, I've edited anthologies and judged writing competitions and have seen stories that have been through multiple drafts that are not and may never be publishable.

    Every writer works differently. Some write quickly and some write slowly. Some write clean first drafts that require little editing and some write messy first drafts that require multiple editing passes. Some use pencil and paper, some typewriters, some computers, and some even dictate or use voice recognition software.

    Ultimately, it doesn't matter how we get from concept to publishable draft. That some of have the ability to get there at all sets us apart from the wanna-be but never-will-be writers out there.

  14. Well said, Michael. And I have nothing but admiration for (and envy of) those who can write a publishable first draft. I am destined to forever create washboard-rough first drafts and many subsequent drafts. As you said, to each his own.

  15. John, I started out writing with a ball point pen on a yellow legal pad because that was what was always handy. Rather than drawing long lines to move sentences or paragraphs, I cut and taped. No two pages were the same length. That was followed by writing on an AT&T 6300 which required two floppy disks, one for Word Star and the other for writing.
    Nowadays with short stories or a chapter, I almost always start at the beginning and re-write/edit until I get to the point where I left off last, then write new stuff. This helps me get back in the voice again while hopefully making the prose better.
    In my old high school, boys didn't take typing, so I'm a two finger typist.
    Paper which has been printed on one side only gets saved for the almost finished story which then gets printed for the First Reader, my wife, in order for her to give me her opinion.
    Everybody finds what works for them.

  16. Word Star!! I remember it well, R.T.

    I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one who never learned to type properly. I use more than two fingers, but I have a hard time not looking at those fingers while they type. I've been told I use the eagle method: hover and dive.

    My wife is my First Reader also (and often my Only Reader). Just the other day she looked over one of my "finished" stories and found several absolutely stupid plot holes. Thank God "real" readers (make that "editors") don't get to see these things until they've been cleaned up a bit.

  17. I outline head/paper. Then it's a first draft on my phone (Google Docs and BlueTooth keyboard). Then import the draft into Word and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

  18. I forgot to ask specifically about this, but it sounds as if most of us choose to do an outline (either in our heads or on paper) before starting the first draft of either a short story or a novel. When I ask about that In the classes I teach, though, it seems it's always about half outliners and half who don't outline. Guess there will always be the two different ways, there.


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