by Christine Liu-Perkins
My rigid attachment to first drafts may have started in college. As a social sciences major, I wrote many papers and only had time to write a single draft of each paper. Once they were written and turned in, I couldn’t imagine any other way to compose them. Fortunately, I was rewarded with many A’s for those college papers.
Unfortunately, first drafts are rarely good enough for professional publication.
I started my post-college writing with pretty good first drafts. But when critiques from fellow writers or editors came in, I didn’t know how to address the issues they raised. I couldn’t see how to change what I had written. Sure, I could make minor tweaks in wording and add or drop sentences here and there. But I was baffled by how to make bigger changes.
Through time and rejections, plus studying others’ work and advice, I realized that if I didn’t learn to revise, my chances of publishing were slim. Like the odds of hitting a bull’s-eye on a first throw—possible but highly unlikely.
A strategy that helps me get beyond seeing only one way to write a chapter, article, or story is to brainstorm multiple openings. For thirty minutes or so, I push myself to keep writing until I’ve created up to six different ways. Writing multiple openings lets me experiment with the tone, focus, structure, etc. It eliminates the pressure of getting it right the first time. And usually this process clarifies which opening is most promising: the one that makes me want to keep writing (and hopefully, makes the reader want to keep reading).
My developing revision skills have served me well on my first book, well enough to earn this comment from my editor regarding the second draft: “I was blown away by the quality of your revision; you did everything I asked for and more, really going above and beyond.”
Now that’s a reward even better than an A.
One chapter in my upcoming book, The Tombs of Mawangdui, describes a library with texts more than two thousand years old. How could I start the chapter in a way that would draw readers in? Here are several openings I drafted:
- A library in ancient China would look very different from a modern library. Modern libraries have rectangular volumes standing upright on shelves with titles printed on the edge. Ancient Chinese bookshelves held rolls of bamboo strips or scrolls of silk lying horizontally with titles on tags hanging down from one end.
- A well-stocked time capsule would contain documents revealing the thoughts and beliefs of people who lived during that period. The Mawangdui tombs provide an amazing array of information to help us understand how people in that time and place viewed the natural world and their lives within it.
- Judging by the library buried with him, the son [of the Marquis and Lady Dai] was well-educated in the knowledge of his times. Thanks to him, that knowledge passed safely through millenia down to us.
- Each of the three tombs at Mawangdui contained valuable treasures. The most amazing discovery from the son’s tomb was an underground library of silk and bamboo books. These books covered a wide range of topics—medicine, philosophy, history, science, and geography. Scholars were very excited about these books because much of their contents had been lost for centuries when copies were destroyed in fires, wars, and through rotting away.
- A rectangular lacquer box lay in the east compartment of the son’s burial chamber. Its black, undecorated outside gave no hint of the valuables hidden within. When archaeologists lifted the lid, they found numerous folded rectangles of silk, two lengths of silk wrapped around a stick, and two rolls of bamboo and wooden strips. The silks and strips were covered with writing. What were they?