#21 – How Do I Make Myself Clear?
The heart of great storytelling (ugly first drafts)
When I write, I write fast. I can sit down and finish a full newsletter post in under 20 minutes. In 2016, I took three weeks off work to drive around Canada’s east coast provinces and wrote most of the first draft of my novel. I tell you this not to brag, but to make an important point all storytellers need to remember. Because, while I’m fast, I’m not necessarily good. At least not in that first draft. My first drafts, in fact, are terrible. If you read the product of that 20-minute newsletter post, most of you would unsubscribe from this weekly adventure. Real fast.
No. The key to great communication in any medium is editing. Some of the best pieces I’ve written came about after weeks, months, and sometimes even years in the case of my novel, of revision. The articles I’m most proud of are those on which I got to work with a great editor at the newspapers and magazines I write for.
Editing is at the heart of good writing and storytelling in general. I took a film studies course in my third year of university that changed the way I watched movies. It helped me understand and see the impact that good editing had on storytelling in film. The cuts, the pans, the fades all of them brought to life what was at first just script, scene, and actor. What a gift that course was because when you pay attention to the editing in a story, it allows you to gain even more insight into the intent of the creator—how they want you to experience and respond to a given story.
It’s harder to see the editing in writing, but when an image in a story you’re reading is sharp and in 3D in your mind’s eye—you feel like you can see exactly what the writer had in mind—that’s often the product of great editing. Any story that you’re telling needs it.
Editing is the process of revising, refining and reworking a story so that it effectively communicates your core message. For marketers it may be reviewing and rewriting your key insight statement until it sparkles with clarity. For creative entrepreneurs it may be refining your product or design so that only the elements that contribute to your greater intent are included. It is more often about taking out than adding in. And it takes time.
Mark Twain once wrote, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Because he knew the effort it takes to make something succinct, clear, and short. It requires hours and days of editing. So, make the space and time for it because it is essential for effective storytelling.
Here are some tips to keep in mind if editing as a process is newer for you:
Keep your core message/intent in mind at all times—rework to get the work closer to it
Cut more than you add
Take a break and go back to a completed draft, you’ll see it in new ways upon your return
Try to experience the draft from a different perspective; I print out presentations on paper to read and arrange them on the floor to ensure the flow makes sense
Related to the above: read it out loud, if it’s audio or video listen or watch in slow motion, you’ll catch more mistakes and clunky phrases
Get a friend to take a look and provide feedback (especially on points that are unclear)
Remove anything superfluous (the extra bits that aren’t adding anything) and replace complicated phrases with simple ones.
Examine and re-examine to the very end. Make sure there’s a flow and energy to the final product—does it feel right, or is something missing?
Don’t worry if your first draft of anything is bad. My first drafts are ugly and messy and often not worthy of consumption. And that’s okay. Every storyteller’s approach is different. Some writers suffer over the course of days trying to find the exact right word to complete a sentence. I essentially vomit on the page, leave blanks where I know a word or beat belongs (because there’s a rhythm to writing for me) and go back to it in another draft.
I want it all on the page so I can examine it, restructure it, and figure out the story. That sometimes means re-writing the entire thing from scratch. Though there’s nothing I hate more than starting over, it can at times be the best path forward for a story. I’ve been thinking about my next novel and it’s actually a return to the first one I ever wrote (this time in a small apartment in Paris after undergrad, because I like to write out of context and why not Paris?). But I’m not going back to revise that draft, I’m going to start with a blank piece of paper and the idea that sparked the first version of the novel.
I finished a book last week that I knew I wanted to share with you all almost immediately. Alok Vaid-Menon is a gender non-conforming writer and performance artist I’ve followed for a while now. They have a booked called Beyond the Gender Binary that is a great foundational piece for those looking to understand the issues trans and non-binary folks face today. It’s also beautifully written. Alok is a poet. Would love to hear what you learn if you get a chance to read it.
Also, if you’re enjoying this or if there’s something you’d like me to cover in a future letter—an element of your storytelling you may be struggling with, please let me know by leaving a comment below. I’m here to help.
Thanks for reading and I’ll “see” you next week. Whatever the world may bring, there will always be important stories that need you to tell them. I’ll be here to help.