Tag Archives: first draft

Chasing Perfection as I edit my First Draft

I’m still revising my novel, moving from a first draft to something I could get an opinion on from another writer. Writing is a solitary activity for so many of us. Perhaps that is why we like to hear and read about the travails of other writers. Recently I have been thinking a great deal about the wise words of two writers.

The first is Clive James, chronically ill, but still writing in the Guardian Weekend Magazine in a series called Reports of My Death. The second is Neil Gaiman who is passionate about the value of the written word to people’s development and wellbeing, and especially for the young. He has been trenchant in his criticism of library closures, for example in his lecture for The Reading Agency in 2012. It’s worth reading.

Pencils from tree trunks.

Pencils from tree trunks.

Clive James’s Misprint

In April this year, Clive James’s column caught my eye because we were about to look at his poems in my reading group. He described the arrival of the finished copies of his Collected Poems after weeks checking proofs ‘until I was finally sure that it was free of misprints throughout its hefty length’.

Delighted with the way the book looked I sat down to read it. There was a misprint, and it was plausible enough to derail the meaning of an entire poem. … It made me feel that I was contemplating the ruins of 60 years of work.

Was this an over-reaction?

By nightfall I was ready to face the sad but consoling truth. If the upside of being old and tired is that a little thing like a finch’s call sounds like heaven, the inevitable downside is that a little thing like a misprint looks like death. Getting things out of proportion is an occupational hazard for anyone whose occupation is over. [Guardian Weekend 23.4.16]

153 tick

Those of us who pour over manuscripts, looking for that last mistake can understand Clive James’s reaction. We want our work to go out into the world on the wings of perfection.

Neil Gaiman’s wise words

What an impossible dream! I do not know the source of my next quotation, although it is included in the Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction (February 2010). Neil Gaiman’s words leapt out at me from a handout I was given at the Festival of Writing, seizing my attention much as Clive James’s dismay had.

Fix it. Remember that sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

Brilliant image! Chasing the horizon. Out on Dartmoor on a beautiful October Sunday, I found myself chasing the horizon up beyond Trowelsworthy Tor. Our landmark, the cairn on Hen Tor, had disappeared as we approached. We had descended into a dip before climbing again. The horizon is a changeable phenomenon, always further away. Its defining feature is its unattainableness.

Trowelsworthy Tor, October 2016

Trowelsworthy Tor, October 2016

Chasing the horizon on Dartmoor is a lot more fun and more beautiful than chasing perfection in writing. Neil Gaiman is right. You need to keep moving.

Knowing when to move on

To write is to try to approximate what we have in our head with some words and punctuation on the page/screen. Before we commit to marking the page, we have an idea to be captured. But as I spool out those words, what I write communicates less and less accurately the image, the story, the ideas in my head. I rewrite, review, revise and rewrite in order to get it closer to perfection. But, like the horizon I cannot reach it. I can get closer, but I never arrive.


This is not a justification for avoiding revision. Not at all. Just an acknowledgement that I need to take account of the possible delusion that this novel of mine could ever be perfect. It will always only be an approximation of what is in my head. That’s how writing is. Writers need to judge the moment when it’s right to stop, when it’s time to move on, to write the next thing.

Related posts

This is the 9th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction #6 April 2016

Revising the novel again (and again) #7 July 2016

Festival of Writing #8 September 2016

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Filed under Learning, My novel, Writing

Writing Coach Pickings

One of the most enjoyable paid jobs I’ve had was as a writing coach for university academics. And for more than a decade my job in the university also included helping students to express themselves in writing for their Masters or Doctoral degree. The bit I really enjoyed was when they began to see their writing taking shape. And although this was coaching in ‘academic’ writing the issues and challenges were much the same as for any writing. What follows are some pickings from the coaching.


267 clockFinding adequate time to write is a very difficult issue for busy professionals. My students were writing up the research they had undertaken, for examination or publication. They frequently underestimated the time taken for the processes of planning and researching, analysis, working out what to say and how, and revision.

Students and colleagues frequently gave precedence to other aspects of their professional lives. They often said writing felt like an indulgence or selfish to focus on their writing. To help them reassess the place and role of writing in professional lives I often used this matrix developed from The Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective People by R. Stephen Covey. He called it a time management matrix (p151).

267 matrix

It is a quick and effective way to show that writing is important but frequently does not get done because it is not urgent, until that deadline looms. By setting the urgency alongside the importance of a task, it is easy to see why writing gets short shrift. But as Covey points out, in the cell * (not urgent but important) are many activities that are necessary for success, including professional development, planning, relationship building, recreation and writing.

In coaching sessions we would discuss how to carve out uninterrupted time to pay attention to the writing, or how to spending an hour or two every weekend on writing activities from the start of their university course.

The myths of academic writing

267 graduation

Students, and to a lesser extent university lecturers, approach what they called academic writing with all kinds of myths: you should use long words, complicated sentence structure, make frequent references to other people’s writing, and – above all – never refer to yourself in the first person. It seemed as though they did not read consciously, or never brought their critical faculties to bear on what they were reading. Clarity is the most important quality. But it is reached after a number of redrafts.


249 blank pages

If a writer is stuck about where to start, the advice is start where you feel most confident. Or start anywhere. If it’s a research paper then you will have a proposal, or outline that you have submitted, and this can be the framework for the report. You might tell the story of how you came to do the research. The word-processing function of all computers means that cutting and pasting is easy, as is adding bits and all revisions. Start!

The first draft

267 1st drAnother myth is that some people find writing easy and only need to do one draft. I think it helped writers to regard the first draft as a way to work out what they have to say. This first draft is the place to think about content, shape, the purpose and audience for the writing. The focus is on the writing. Later you can think about the reading.


Put the important bits first

Clarity in non-fiction often means putting the important bits up front: in the introduction, in the opening paragraph of each section and in the opening sentence of each paragraph. A useful strategy is to read through the first sentences to check if you get a good idea of what the paper or report is about.

Long sentences

Long sentences, with lots of subordinate clauses are usually not as clear as short ones. Consider writing two sentences.

There are cultural differences in writing. An Italian student had me quite confused when I read her drafts until she told me that in Italy she was encouraged to use very long sentences and to reveal the conclusions at the end of the paper.

71 Manuscript-Editing4


There are different ways with feedback and this is what my fellow writer Eileen Carnell said about them in a post called Getting feedback to improve our writing (May 2016) 255. She was writing about feedback we sought when we were writing our next book, The New Age of Ageing.

Everyday use of the term feedback (the dominant view) suggests the reader presents information to the writer – a one-way process. We describe this feedback as Gifts (see note). In other situations the nature of feedback has a social dimension, rather like Ping-Pong, where ideas are tossed back and forth and involve making connections. There are shared insights and new meanings established. Feedback here is a two-way process. The third example, our favoured kind, is what we define as Loops. Here there is an equal power dynamic in which new knowledge and concepts are created through dialogue.

I frequently used questions to help a novice writer think about their reader: What is the most important point in this section? Why are you telling us this? What else might cause the outcomes you are describing? And most often: SO WHAT? This last meant that the writer had implied the importance of what they were saying, but not yet shown how it connects to their main themes.


A very useful tool this, developed by my colleague and former co-author, Chris Watkins. WIRMI stands for What I Really Mean Is. It is used when the words are getting tangled, and it’s hard to sort out a sentence or a paragraph. You take your hands off the keyboard (or lay down your pen), sit back in your chair and say, ‘what I really mean is …’ and there they come: the words you need.

Taking Ownership

Many student writers feel apologetic, as though they should not really join the conversation with the elite. But I would encourage their confidence by reminding them that they knew more about their research focus than anyone else, they were in fact world experts. And I encouraged them to sit down and write a few sentences about why they are the best person to be writing this report.

Some pet hates

145 writing keyboard

Exclamation marks. These are often used to imply humour or irony, but without explanation.

Scare quotes. These are often used to imply a different voice, but can be misconstrued without the voice being named.

Capital letters for everything. British teachers often tend to give every school subject, the word school on all occasions, all roles within school and just about everything else a capital letter, as in The Senior Teacher from the Upper School was taking the History lesson.

Ending with a pithy quote from a respected writer instead of closing with their own voice.

Being asked how many references per page are required.

The best bit

On reflection I think there are two key aspects to being a writing coach:

  1. sitting next to the writer (figuratively perhaps) and helping them work out what they wanted to say and how,
  2. and acting as a reader, explaining my experience of reading their texts.

In practice these two aspects of the role are not distinguishable.

The best bit of being a writing coach was helping someone improve their writing and to see how to apply their learning to their future writing.

The next best thing was the learning I did, from figuring out how to help the writers. And I quite often sit back and say ‘What I really mean is …’

Related posts and books

Getting feedback to improve our writing on this blog in May 2016

10 things to do when you don’t know what to write in December 2013

Being a Writing Coach by Beth Miller on Women Writers, Women’s Books blog. She draws on the characteristics of coach in Cheers, is sympathetic and pragmatic and heading for the bar.

The Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective People (1992) by R. Stephen Covey, published by Simon & Schuster

Askew, S & Lodge, C (2000). Gifts, Ping-Pong and Loops – linking feedback and learning, in Askew, S. (Ed) Feedback for Learning. London: Routledge

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Filed under Books, Writing

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot

I committed 6 weeks to following an on-line course on self-editing the first draft of my novel. I enjoyed it very much and learned a great deal, and when I finished I drew up a plan for the editing. You can read about my plan here. It involves six stages, each a focus for roughly a month on one aspect of the course. Phase one was structure and plot. Phase 2 is characters.

JG Ballard's edit of The Crash, tweeted by @johnnyGeller

JG Ballard’s edit of The Crash, tweeted by @johnnyGeller

It’s time to review how it’s going.

Here are the excuses, aka reasons

  1. All the things I had put to one side so that I could complete the course have claimed my attention since I finished.
  2. I have several writing projects –the blog, a co-authored book, writing groups – and these have also claimed my attention.
  3. I have had other time-consuming activities such as joining a panel at WOW The Truth about Ageing and the City Lit meet the authors event.
  4. All the other time-consuming activities such as walking, grandparenting, seeing friends, going to the opera, a day at the spa, all these have stolen away the days.
  5. Spring means that the desire to spend time in the garden has overwhelmed me, until …
  6. … I got this rotten cough and cold.

So it’s not surprising that my progress has not been as I hoped and envisaged.

What I have done

  1. I have decided on a new structure for the novel, which involves re-ordering half of the chapters, adding a new one and moving some scenes around. Not much re-writing there, but it feels like an important decision as well as the right one and I looked at it carefully before the physical task of renumbering consumed me.
  2. I have read lots of posts on writer Emma Darwin’s excellent blog: This Itch of Writing. I especially liked the one about the exercise where you go through the plot looking at fortunately/unfortunately. This reveals where the plot is engaging and moving forward. For example: ‘Fortunately Lorna’s niece came to stay. Unfortunately the nosey girl opened the box of letters.’
  3. 163 Into woods coverEmma Darwin recommends Into the Woods by John Yorke (Penguin), about story telling. It’s an interesting book about structure, and what keeps a story moving and why we tell stories this way. That’s stories of all kinds: novels, plays, tv series, films etc.
  4. I’ve been reading novels recommended during the course to help me look at structure and also psychic distance. I need to grapple with both of these during my revision.
  5. I’m learning that revision means asking questions, taking a longer view and lots of thinking and considering. At this moment, not so much rewriting. I am predicting that this will change as I move through The Great Plan.
  6. And now I’ve started on the second phase, revising aspects of the characters. I have already redrafted the arrival of the second main character. It’s not tight enough yet, doesn’t quite say enough about her yet, but I’ll get some feedback from a writing group this weekend.

    Pencils from tree trunks. Have I bitten off more than I can shew?

    Pencils from tree trunks. Have I bitten off more than I can shew?

Well I’m being systematic, which may not be a good thing. But at least I have a plan and I am following it. When I first tried to revise my first draft I had no real clue what to do. Now I feel a little more in charge. Will it last? Oh I do hope it will last.

Do you have any recommendations for books about revising a first draft?


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Filed under My novel, Writing

On-line writing course #3 Finished?

I signed up for a six-week on-line writing course to learn how to edit the first draft of my novel. Longstanding readers of this blog will be aware that my draft has been in a drawer for a long time. I have been busy in the meantime but I was aware I didn’t know how to proceed following the achievement of the first draft.

145 writing keyboardThe course was called Self-Editing Your Novel run by The Writers’ Workshop. It required a payment, joining a website community and a commitment for six weeks. I tried and largely succeeded in giving an hour a day, six days a week for the six weeks. During that time I composed my own questions on each of the six themes, watched the weekly introductory videos, read the tutor notes, composed and posted my homework, read other people’s homework, commented on them, read comments on mine, and paying particular attention to the tutors’ comments on my homework.

The tutors were Emma Darwin and Debi Alper. They demonstrated sensitivity, encouragement, critical commentary, suggestions, occasional ticking off, generosity, as well as deep knowledge and understanding of the processes of novel writing and editing. I am full of admiration for their skills in teaching these.

My aims have been achieved

These were my aims for the course (as reported on a previous post):

  • √ To acquire the skills I need to move my novel on to the next stage.
  • √ To practise these self-editing skills.
  • √ To begin to identify the tasks and approaches I need to attend to to move my novel on.
  • √ To identify specific tasks I need to undertake related to these aspects: plot, character, voice, point of view and prose.
  • √ To connect with other writers through the Cloud who are involved in the same processes.
  • √ To blog about the experiences at least once more.

153 tick153 tick153 tick


I have learned a lot, not all of it comfortable, about myself as a writer-learner (see my second post on progress). The on-line context became irrelevant once I found my way around.

I have learned a great deal about the process of editing, in each of the 5 categories:

  1. plot,
  2. character,
  3. voice, point of view,
  4. psychic distance and
  5. prose

I have ways of thinking about each of these now, and some activities that will help me see if large-scale revisions are required. I have a notebook full of things to attend to. We were advised not to try to revise our WIP during the course, so these had to be noted down for later. And here we are at ‘later’.

I learned about the power of the group, how encouragement, comments, reactions, questions from others can nudge, push and force writer-learners to see their WIP in new ways.

And I learned about the stimulating, inventive and creative ideas of my fellow novelists.

And while I’ve been learning…

… I have been getting on with blogging, meeting my fellow authors on our non-fiction book for a three day write-in, reading 9 novels, publishing some short fiction (see previous post on this), getting ready for two events to promote Retiring with Attitude, and attending a workshop where I learned how to make a red felt hat. This one!

153 Red hat

What next?

I have a plan. Better than any of Baldrick’s plans.

It includes completing the revision of my novel by the end of August when I am due to go on a trip abroad. I will revise it to the level where I feel a professional critique would be the best next step. So not finished then.

Many thanks

To Emma Darwin, Debi Alper, The Writers’ Workshop website and my fellow participants.


Previous posts about this course.

  1. An On-line Writing Course #1 Purposes
  2. On-line Writing Course #2 in-progress


What has been your best learning from writing courses? Can you say what helped make it a good learning experience? Would you recommend the course to others?


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Filed under Learning, My novel, Writing