#7: Working on Broken Drafts

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Dear Story Nurse,

Most of the writing I do these days is scripts for a video essay series I do on YouTube. These essays tend to be between 2000-5000 words, and I am trying (on occasion, successfully) to release one every month. I am quite happy with how the series has come along, and I think I’ve become pretty good at both drafting and revising my scripts to a point that satisfies me.

The big exception is when I grow too attached to a draft that isn’t working.

My current example: I started the script for my next video about nine months ago. I was tackling a fairly complex subject that was hard to make any single, definitive statement about, so I opted to write the script more as a series of micro-essays—taking one facet of the subject, writing 1-3 paragraphs about it, and then tackling another, related subject, in the hopes that viewing it kaleidoscopically would help viewers understand the complexity of the subject.

In the end, that structure didn’t work. I didn’t have as much to say as I thought I would, so I didn’t have enough angles to “come at it from many angles.” But what I’d written was arguably the best individual paragraphs I’d ever written, and, as I tried to start over, I found it very difficult to let go of all these well-written, standalone passages. After trying to restructure the essay into something more linear and thesis-based without changing too much of the text, I shelved the script and worked on something else.

Several months later, I came back to it, with some better ideas about how to structure it, but I still couldn’t let go of a lot of the text, which didn’t fit well into the new structure. And when I tried to write new text that adequately fit the structure, I felt it didn’t meet the quality of the old draft. So, again, I shelved the script and worked on something else.

Months later, I’m finally finishing the script, and did manage to let go of a lot while keeping some of my favorite bits, and the whole thing is working a lot better. But the only way I’ve managed to let go of the old drafts has been to repeatedly step away for months at a time, which is at odds with my attempt to keep a schedule. Each time it’s a struggle, because I have to find a way to get excited about the subject all over again. I also worry that I’m overthinking things; if I had simply made and released the original, kaleidoscopic version of the video, would anyone but me have been bothered by its structure?

This is my most extreme example, but I run into this problem fairly often. So I suppose this is a two-part question:

A) Broadly speaking, do you have any advice for letting go of drafts that you are happy with when you recognize that, in a fundamental way, they don’t work?

B) More specifically, do you have advice for either polishing an imperfect draft or swiftly gutting and rebuilding it when you’re trying to meet a deadline? Does the advice for A) still apply? Can it be adapted? And how do you get yourself re-invested in a subject that’s giving you trouble when you don’t have time to switch to a different topic?

—Old Draft Romantic (he/him)

Dear Old Draft Romantic,

I think every creative writer has some version of this question sooner or later—and it’s usually sooner, because this is one of those skills that you have to exercise to make it stronger, like a muscle. Over time, as you write more, you will learn to recognize which ideas can be developed easily, which can be developed painstakingly, and which can’t be developed. And you will learn more about your own process of development, which will help make both easy and difficult development go more smoothly. I can give you some suggestions and shortcuts, but they’re no substitute for practice. So keep going with your writing and don’t give up, even when it gets discouraging! As you persevere, you will become more discerning and more efficient, and “waste” less and less time. It’s not really wasted, because you’re building your skills, but it can feel that way if it produces work that’s not usable for a particular purpose.

Let’s talk about that purpose.

Four big factors shape most written work:

  • Your medium
  • Your topic, genre, brand, assignment, or whatever word you want to put on “there are some things I write about and other things I don’t write about”
  • Your audience—both the audience you already have and the audience you want to get
  • Your goal(s), such as making money or conveying a message

Your medium is monthly (or ~monthly) video essays. You don’t mention your topic or your audience, but since you’ve been doing this for a little while I figure you know what they are. For the sake of hypothetical examples, let’s say your essays are about history and are aimed at elementary school students, and your goals right now are to educate your audience and attract new viewers. There are other things that can influence your work, of course, but these are the major ones.

Obviously the best thing is to avoid developing ideas into scripts that turn out not to work, so run each idea through the major factor checklist before you start in. “I want to talk about the gold standard for currency! How will I go about doing that on video, in 2000 to 3000 words, in a way that’s appropriate, enjoyable, and educational for young kids and will bring in more viewers?” If you can’t at least sketch out an answer, it’s time to pick a different idea. It sounds like you approached that particular tricky script with the attitude of “I have this idea and am committed to it!” rather than “Is this idea useful for my purposes?” But there’s no shortage of ideas. Don’t ever feel afraid to let an idea go, or set it aside for later. That months-long pondering process about the tricky complicated ideas can happen in the back of your head while you’re mostly working on developing other ideas that are easier to turn into workable scripts.

You didn’t mention much about your writing process, but if you can get in the habit of outlining, that can help you spot any potential problem areas before you commit yourself to writing the whole thing. You don’t need a detailed outline; beginning, middle, and end will do fine, with a few bullet points for each. Or make a list of the major things you want to talk about regarding the central idea. If you have too many, narrow your focus; if you only have a few, expand your scope or try a different idea.

I’m going to tackle your specific questions in reverse, because in most cases you’re going to want to try at least one round of revisions before giving up on something you’ve put work into.

do you have advice for either polishing an imperfect draft or swiftly gutting and rebuilding it when you’re trying to meet a deadline?

If you’ve already written a script and are getting that gut feeling that it doesn’t work, resist the urge to ask “Why doesn’t this work?” and instead ask “How doesn’t this work?” It almost certainly runs counter to one or more of those four factors:

  • It’s not right for your medium (e.g., you meant to write an essay but it came out as a poem)
  • It doesn’t fit your topic (e.g., you meant to write about history but kept thinking about your ex)
  • It’s not appropriate, enjoyable, or comprehensible for your audience (e.g., your poem about your ex contains language that you probably shouldn’t put in a video for nine-year-olds)
  • It doesn’t achieve your goals (e.g., that poem not only won’t draw in new viewers but will put off some of the ones you have, and it’s really not anything like educational)

If it’s only off the mark in one direction, that can be a fairly easy fix. You wrote a great educational video script about history that just got a little wordy in some places? No problem; go back and tweak the language so younger kids will understand it and older ones won’t yawn. If it’s off the mark in multiple directions, that’s a good sign that you might want to set it aside and work on something else. Likewise, if you try to fix the one problem you’ve identified and others start popping up, it’s time to move on.

Each time it’s a struggle, because I have to find a way to get excited about the subject all over again…. how do you get yourself re-invested in a subject that’s giving you trouble when you don’t have time to switch to a different topic?

Here is the journalist’s secret, which many creative writers could really use: You don’t have to be excited about the subject to write about it well in ways that excite your audience. Excitement is nice when you have it, but sometimes you’re on deadline and you’re not excited and you still have to make the deadline. You buckle down and you do it anyway. It’s like writing a term paper. If you were really excited about the topic, you might write an A+ paper instead of a B paper, but turning in a B paper on time is better than turning in an A+ paper late (or not at all because you were still waiting for that magical excitement to come along).

The alternative is to explicitly move away from that monthly schedule and onto a plan of putting up videos whenever the spirit moves you. That is a completely fine way to do it as long as it serves your goals. If your goal is expressing yourself and enjoying your enthusiasm about your chosen topics, then by all means, take as long as you like with each labor of love. This may sound sarcastic but I’m totally serious. Many artists operate this way. Those artists usually have other sources of income, is the thing. Once you decide you need to run your creative writing operation as a business and start thinking about audience development and increased earnings and so on, regular production of material becomes more of an issue, and you’re going to have to sacrifice some enthusiasm and artistry to the maw of the deadline. It is the sad way of the capitalist world.

(For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume you’re sticking with the monthly schedule with all of its upsides and downsides—and not only sticking with it, but sticking to it. No more “on occasion, I manage to be on schedule”; if you don’t keep to the schedule, it’s not a schedule. Once you make that commitment to your viewers, you need to keep it.)

My own journalism career got a lot easier for me when I started saying “Wow, that’s COOL!” to every assignment topic, whether I immediately felt that way about it or not, because it encouraged me to think of who would find it cool and then step into their shoes. So if you have an idea that you think would make a good video but you’re not super enthusiastic about it, and you don’t have any other useful ideas that you’re more enthusiastic about, mentally put yourself in the place of someone who’s watching your video, and try to figure out what would make that person say “Wow, this is COOL!” Engage your empathy with that imaginary excited person in order to reawaken excitement in yourself.

If you have trouble imagining a typical audience member, that’s definitely something to work on. You should know at least the basic demographics of your current and desired audiences, and it’s not hard to turn that into an image of someone in front of their computer clicking the “play” button on your video. Don’t get too specific and detailed with your imagined person, because that can accidentally lock you into only making videos for brown-haired dog owners; if you’re deliberately targeting a wide range of viewers, it might help to think of a group of people all watching your video together, or do the little split-screen thing where you picture half a dozen friends watching it separately but simultaneously. Keeping your audience in mind this way will help you keep your videos targeted to the viewers you have and want to bring in, in addition to being a motivational tool. You can even use that sense of your audience to help yourself feel better about scrapping something that’s not going anywhere, and point you in the direction of improvement: “This just isn’t suitable/clear/fun enough for my viewers. I’m going to make something even better that they’ll love and want to share with all their friends.”

And that brings us back to your question A.

Broadly speaking, do you have any advice for letting go of drafts that you are happy with when you recognize that, in a fundamental way, they don’t work?

It will help to have a more concrete sense of what “doesn’t work” means, as discussed above. Instead of a vague sense that this script makes you sad, you’ll know what the problem is and why you weren’t able to solve it, which lets you believe that you can’t solve it, which lets you stop trying. Setting other tangible benchmarks can also be useful: “I did two full revision passes and that is my limit.” “I have now invested five full hours of my life in rewriting this script and that is my limit.” This can feel like breaking up with someone who’s a generally decent person but just not right for you: it’s sad, but better for you than trying and trying and trying to make things click when no click is possible. Down the road you’ll find much greater happiness with a different script, but first you have to make room for it in your mind and your workspace.

But what I’d written was arguably the best individual paragraphs I’d ever written, and, as I tried to start over, I found it very difficult to let go of all these well-written, standalone passages.

There are a few ways to tackle this. One is the artistic approach, which requires you to believe in yourself as a skilled writer. Just as there’s no shortage of ideas, there’s no shortage of well-written paragraphs. You have the ability to make them right now—you know this because you did it, more than once—and that ability will only improve with practice. If you’re coming from the notion of scarcity, you will feel desperate to cling to every phrase you love. But the scarcity is an illusion. There are uncountable amazing paragraphs in your future. You haven’t written them yet, but you will. Give yourself the opportunity to do that by leaving your older work in the past. If you keep recycling your material, you’ll never develop and improve your craft.

The other is the pragmatic approach. Many years ago, I studied architecture and interior design, and my interior design professor taught us that when we were selecting objects to furnish a client’s house, we should ask, “Is it beautiful? Is it useful? Does it meet my needs?” If I went into a vintage store and fell in love with a gorgeous set of handmade lace drink coasters that would in no way suit my client’s modern chrome-and-glass coffee table, my job was to give those coasters a sad pat and leave them on the shelf and go looking for the perfect cork-backed slate coasters instead. Your paragraphs were beautiful, and they were presumably useful for conveying their specific ideas. But they didn’t meet your needs, and part of your job as a writer is to recognize that and leave them on the shelf at the paragraph store.

It’s hard to teach yourself to view art in a practical way, but the more you can emphasize the question of whether a script or a paragraph serves your purposes, and the more serious you are about your deadlines, the easier it will be to escape perfectionism. Shifting away from artistic vision and toward practicality will help you both run with scripts that are good enough (even though they’re not perfect) and let go of those that will never be good enough (even though you put so much effort into them and parts of them are so good).

Moving on is hard to do, and it’s harder the more time and effort you’ve invested (the good ol’ sunk cost fallacy). Fortunately, the more words you’ve written—and the more you can take that deadline-driven, purpose-driven, “this is good enough” approach, which helps to emotionally disengage you from your writing a little bit—the less bad you feel about having to scrap some of them. And the better you get at writing, the more beautiful gem-like paragraphs you’ll craft; if you have to keep a few of them to yourself instead of sharing them with the world, it won’t feel so bad. So regardless of whether you take the artistic approach or the pragmatic approach or a mix of both, keep writing keep writing keep writing! In a few years all the things you’re struggling with now will seem really basic and easy—and you’ll have a whole new set of questions for me, which I very much look forward to reading.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

P.S. Apologies to anyone who got an Annie Lennox earworm from that post title. If it helps you feel better, I did it to myself too.

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