First Draft and Second Thoughts

(Originally appeared October 2011)

If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn’t realize the teacher was saying, “Make it shine. It’s worth it.” Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It’s a new vision of something. It means you don’t have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!                                             
Naomi Shihab Nye

 I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.
 James Michener

I had a student in the Writing Center this week with a first draft of an English Composition essay. He was worried about the quality of his writing, worried that it wasn’t well thought-out, worried about length – just worried about every real or imagined shortcoming in general. His draft wasn’t any better or worse than any other first draft; it was just that – a first draft.

Students who aren’t familiar with the “writing is a process” model think it possible (and maybe it was in high school) to bang out a quality paper at 2:00am the night before a due date. This effort might get a strong writer a passing grade, but most of us need several drafts to produce the quality of writing needed for more complicated college writing assignments. I have never been able to sit in front of a blank computer screen and churn out anything worth reading on the first try. In fact, it might take me 5, 6, or 10 revisions before a piece is ready to be read by my peers.

The word essay derives from the French essayer, “to try” or “to attempt.” First drafts will often be an intro that leads to nothing, a conclusion with no beginning, or a middle with no engine or caboose, or simply some scribbled notes. First drafts are just that – a first attempt. You don’t have to be perfect the first time. But I guarantee the more you revise a piece, the more close to perfect it will become.



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