About a month ago, after watching a video on how to practice music, I started to write a post on how to become a better writer, with the basic theme being practice and my intentions aimed at discussing some ideas about developing a good practice. As I worked on that post, however, I got sidetracked into a three-post digression into discussing what it means to be a good writer because how do you become a better writer without knowing what a good writer is?
In my posts on what it is to be a good writer, I discussed three general dimensions of being a good writer: (1) producing good written works; (2) enjoying or feeling a sense of accomplishment when writing; and (3) having a writing practice that leads to growth. The first of these three dimensions is the one that most people think of with respect to “good writers,” but the others are important, too, because of their relationship to the key factor in becoming a better writer (in all three senses): practice.
As I said, I started this series of posts about a month ago, when I had a certain vision of what I wanted to do. But in the course of that month, things have happened that give me new ideas, or at least lead me to revisit old ideas. This post is related to becoming a better writer—it is about one specific question in how to practice writing effectively—but it is a bit more specific than I was planning on. However, I’ve decided to go with this because the idea for it was sparked by a recent interaction with a writer.
Re-animating old work vs. growing a new draft
This writer was talking about using previous papers as a foundation for a new draft, and spoke of “Frankenstein-ing a draft,” meaning to pick chunks of old work, and to stitch them together into a complete whole. Reflecting on this plan of action (and looking through the old drafts to find pieces that could be used for the “Frankenstein draft”), I came up against a principle that I strongly believe helps writers use their time and effort more effectively.
Because the language of the discussion was one from science fiction/horror, I framed a comparison in terms of the genre: is it better to create a Frankenstein draft, or is it better to get something out of the cloning vats? The idea of a Frankenstein’s monster is pretty clear: a body stitched together from several different parts, perhaps awkwardly. My idea of “cloning vats” isn’t something I can associate with any single cultural work (a search for “cloning vats” turns up a lot of science fiction games). In this particular analogy, I’m imagining the “cloning vats” as a system in which old organic matter is recycled to provide the raw materials from which new creatures are grown. In terms of writing practice, I’m really focusing on the choice between revising and rewriting—the choice between trying to reuse old material and trying to generate new material.
A newly grown draft will better embody new ideas
The first reason I recommend this is that we learn as we go: if you have learned something new or thought of something new, that new idea will be much easier to bring to life in a new draft than it will if you’re trying to stitch it into a Frankenstein draft. The pieces from which a Frankenstein draft is built are a reflection of what you thought at some previous time. Trying to make new ideas conform to demands of a draft built on old thinking can push you away from what you have learned.
Perhaps most crucial in “new ideas” are the shifts in the purpose that drive any given draft. In the specific case that inspired the post, the writer wanted to reuse material that was originally written to answer questions from professors. That material was admirably suited as answers to the questions, but not so well suited to the present need, which is to explain the foundations of the dissertation they are trying to create. Even if the two drafts share most of their content, the difference between writing an answer to a question like “what methods can be used to research…?” and the question “what methods were used in this specific project” is a massive one. One question asks for an overview of methods; the other asks for explanations of why specific methods were used.
Growing a new draft helps build skill at writing to the blank page
The second reason I recommend writing a new draft is that it’s more practice as a writer. Writing a new draft is going to challenge your skills more. This is not to say that there’s no skill developed in the attempt to build a Frankenstein, and I could be convinced that you learn just as much in either process. So maybe I shouldn’t include this as a reason to rewrite instead of revising. It depends on which ability is more valuable to a writer: the ability to revise, or the ability to compose on a blank page. Offhand, I would say that the latter is more important, but it’s a question that might be worth exploring: in particular, I’m thinking about my own personal problems with revision and my tendency to get frustrated with my own work.
Growing a new draft builds the confidence that you can write a new draft when needed.
A third reason I argue for the rewriting rather than revising is that, in the context of a larger practice of writing, or a career that involves a lot of writing, it’s good to start to think in terms of writing quickly and easily. Writing is always going to be difficult, but the question is whether that difficulty is intimidating or not. Speaking is difficult, but people speak when needed. Some people avoid public speaking, of course, but no one would argue that such avoidance places limits on the person in many career contexts. Avoiding writing is a lot like avoiding public speaking: it’s giving up a valuable tool. Willingness to rewrite takes some confidence in writing ability, but it can also help build that same confidence. In a way, this last point might be the most important in terms of becoming a better writer: it’s much easier to be a good writer if you think that sitting down to write will be productive.
Growing a new draft can be easier than revising old material
A fourth reason I argue for rewriting is that in my experience it can be easier than revising. People are often intimidated by a blank page, and turn to an old draft because there is comfort in the completed work. Many think that revising will be easier than writing anew, but in my experience that’s not necessarily the case. Revising is hard work. Writing is hard work, too, but bot necessarily as hard as many feel it to be. Writing, the verbal expression of thought on the page, is not really more difficult than speaking, at least in the sense that the real difficulty in both writing and speaking is finding words to express ideas. Writing is harder than speaking because writing does require consideration of punctuation and spelling and the such—but those are minor details that are secondary to the difficulty of finding good ways to express ideas. With practice, issues of spelling and punctuation become less difficult and demand less attention, and interfere less with the main task of expressing ideas. That people can produce a lot of words in a short time when they don’t worry about punctuation and such is evidenced by the exams that students write. I’ve known plenty of people who struggled with writing blocks when given a lot of time to write, but almost all of them have successfully written essays in exams with limited time. It’s not as if these people somehow lost the ability to write a lot of words in a short time, it’s more that there is some inhibition stopping them from writing so quickly. People who wrote 500 or 1000-word essays in 3-hour exams could also write 1000-word essays in 3 hours of writing time, if they made the same compromises they made in the exam: to write something, no matter how messy, and no matter that they may not be entirely confident. If you believe that you can write 1000 words in a few hours, suddenly rewriting a 4000-word chapter doesn’t seem nearly as intimidating.
Which technique is best, depends on context (not surprisingly).
For one, the less time you have, the more the reason to Frankenstein something, especially if you only have a very short time. If you only have a day to put together a presentation, then stitching together a Frankenstein makes good sense simply because it’s hard to generate lot of new material in a very short time.
For two, I would say that Frankenstein-ing is more valuable when dealing with recent material. The longer it’s been since you have written something, the more likely that you will have learned something that might shift how you approach that subject.
For three, the quality of the work influences whether to try to re-use it: the better the work, the greater the incentive to try to make use of it.
But re-using material isn’t always a good idea because you don’t want to over-repeat yourself. There are contexts in which re-using material is fine. Rough drafts or material written for coursework is fine for re-use (though perhaps lacking in quality). Previously published material, however, may not be acceptable if you’re supposed to be creating something new and original.
Sometimes, it’s great to have old writing that you can reuse. Having fragments that can be patched together into some whole, however, awkward, can be immensely useful in a tight spot. But on the whole, being able to compose a new work readily, and having the confidence that you can do so, is the more valuable skill for a writer. Don’t tie yourself to the limitations of old work if you can create something new that does a better job of integrating the old material. And don’t assume that trying to piece together old work is easier: often it’s much harder and more frustrating because old work doesn’t capture any new learning since the old draft was written (especially learning about your purposes: is what you are trying to accomplish now, the same as what you were trying to accomplish then?).
If you want to be a better writer, try to write new things, instead of relying on your past work.