A friend sent the first draft of a story and it
wasn’t good. My friend tends to beat herself up
when the writing doesn’t come easily, but she
shouldn’t. It is OK when a first draft fails to
be brilliant—provided the writer understands that
the draft is just the beginning of the work.
The writer fails only if he or she tries to foist
the draft on readers—or dumps it on an editor to
Some writers in journalism pay lip service to the
idea of revising, but the truth is they don’t
want to do it. As soon as they get a story in
written form, however rough, they want to move on
to the next one.
The nature of journalism tends to encourage
impatience and short attention spans—or at least
gives these writers an excuse for their attitude.
Some stories must be written on deadline, with no
time to rewrite. Because rewriting is sometimes
not feasible, the writers find it easy to avoid
even when it is feasible. The writers get in the
habit of regarding rewriting as an artsy-craftsy
indulgence. They get unspoken reinforcement from
editors who accept rough drafts and publish them
as is or who do the revision the writers should
be required to do.
The truth is, though, that often the reporter has
time, or can arrange to have time, for rewriting.
Many news and feature stories need not be written
The better writers learn to embrace the
opportunity to do new drafts, and some enjoy it.
They learn to throw out words, phrases,
paragraphs that don’t serve the story.
Revising allows them to:
Reshape the story. First drafts often lack
focus and flow. In subsequent drafts, the writer
imposes order—or lets the story find its natural
Trim flab. This can include even elements—
anecdotes, bits of description, clever metaphors—
that might be fine in themselves but don’t
advance the story.
Nail the theme. At the heart of a good story
is an idea, even though it may not be expressed
directly. Sometimes the idea gets lost in the
Hide the seams: Part of what makes rough
drafts rough is the clumsy way the parts are
stitched together. Characters are introduced
awkwardly. Quotes are plopped in without enough
context for the reader to understand.
First drafts might come out better more often if
writers would take the trouble to plan them. Many
journalists don’t. This is another idea they pay
lip service to but fail to practice.
Instead of organizing the story, they concentrate
on writing a clever lead, or what they imagine to
be a clever lead. They hope the rest of the story
will flow from their lead. If the story is the
least bit complicated, this is a route to
Again, it is all right if the first draft is
disastrous, so long as you revise it. But at some
point, you need to map out the story, so why not
do it before the first draft and get ahead of the
game? You may still need to revise that draft,
but the revision will probably be considerably
I mentioned my friend who was having trouble with
a story. A couple of days later, she sent another
draft and it was much better. I knew it would be.
My friend is a pro.