Writers often express pain at cutting or changing things in revision. It’s very easy to get attached to your work. It’s personal, it’s private, and it probably took you a lot of work to write it. We get attached to the things we made. This is sometimes called the “Ikea effect.” Our labor is precious to us, as are the memories we make as we work through that labor. Your writing is your companion; you had a deep conversation with it while you were working on it, and that thrill of discovery of being the first person to read it made you strongly attached to it.
Yet, we also know as writers that drafts must be disposable. That is simply their nature; they’re transient things we make along the way toward the final product. They can, and should, be thrown out without regard to sentiment as needed for the betterment of the project overall.
These feelings, both very important to the writing process, are fundamentally at odds with each other and can stymie writers midway through their projects. It requires a little bit of reframing to learn to let go of drafts and accept their temporary nature, but at the same time honor their importance as foundational parts of the writing process.
To that end, I like to envision drafts as rehearsals. There are some significant differences, which I’ll discuss here, but it really helps me to get into the right emotional mindset to both respect the labor of drafting but also let go of the drafts themselves as needed.
You see, although a lot of people don’t know this about me anymore, I spent a third of my life mostly in band rooms and rehearsal halls. As an undergraduate, I spent more time in band rehearsals for several ensembles than I did in the library or the English department halls, despite being an English major. In the time between seventh grade and finishing my PhD, a time spanning over 15 years, there were very few times that I was involved in fewer than two musical ensembles. The intensity of rehearsals diminished significantly after undergraduate, when I mostly laid aside playing trombone and shifted to casual choir and bell ensembles, but rehearsal time is still sacred to me. Writing was something that happened in between rehearsals and performances.
One key feature of rehearsal is that the performers know that they’re not only improving the piece itself and their performance of that piece, but themselves. Every hour spent in rehearsal is also an hour spent improving their own skills, getting better as a performer, knowing their art and their tools more intimately and expanding their repertoire. Rehearsal isn’t just about the piece you’re playing, it’s about the performer playing it, and writing drafts is much the same.
But here’s the most important thing about rehearsals: you don’t get to keep them, but you have to do them to improve the product. Musical performances can be recorded, but while you can remix stuff in post for professional recordings, most performances still have to be done in one sitting after several practice runs to make sure it’s going to work. It’s true that professionals often have very few rehearsals, being able to throw a piece together by practicing on their own and in pieces and then putting the pieces together at the last minute, but generally at least one run-through that will be entirely discarded is necessary to make sure everything’s working right and that all the pieces fit the way they should. And even professional performers—or perhaps especially professionals, who understand the value of such things—require warmup and preparation before they perform even their most well-known repertoire.
When I write fiction, I go into my first draft knowing that it’s just a sight-reading of the piece. I’m learning the “road map,” as my directors used to call it. I’m identifying the key points, working out which parts are going to be difficult and need more focus, and exploring the general feel of the piece so I know what kind of tone and technique it’s going to require. Often in a sight-read, I would learn that a piece required a tool (such as a straight mute) or a technique that I didn’t have available. That got circled, and sometimes noted elsewhere so I’d work it out before the next rehearsal. And that was ok! It was just a sight-read. An introduction.
When I write a first draft of a novel, usually for National Novel Writing Month, I’m getting my first introduction to that novel. It’s discovery. And it’s rehearsal. I’m making mental notes about what to do in the next run through.
And then I scrap it and start over.
Because that’s what you do in a rehearsal. You do a sight-read. You mark the difficult stuff, make notes for next time, maybe run through a few difficult figures, and then, following those notes, you do it again.
Sometimes a sight read sounds pretty great and you can just do the same thing over again with minor changes and work on sections at a time. Sometimes I can write a second draft with the first draft beside me, and literally transcribe whole scenes with a few minor edits as I rework the thing.
Sometimes a sight read crashes and burns and you take what you learned and go at it completely differently. Those times, I write the second draft blind, just remembering what worked (or working off a skeletal outline). This happens when I realize that I need to try a completely different perspective, for instance, or a different genre entirely.
There is, however, one significant difference between a draft and a rehearsal: you get to keep the bits of the drafts you like. While I generally like to retype the whole thing so that I’m processing each sentence again for flow and style, you don’t have to, and I don’t always. You can simply copy/paste sections. You can edit in the previous draft. That’s something the musician can’t do. They can record rehearsals for later reference, but ultimately the final performance is live (studio recordings work a little more like drafts, but even then not quite, and I don’t have intimate enough experience with studio recording to make that comparison exactly).
Sometimes in a rehearsal, there are rare, beautiful moments in which you long to be able to can what you just did and release it onto the stage. And that’s the key advantage we writers have: we can. But for everything else, it can help writers to think of their drafting more as rehearsal for the final version: not merely improving the project, but improving their own ability to write the project, so that the next time they write it, it will be better.
Time in rehearsal is never wasted, even if it can’t be kept. Drafting is never wasted, even if you keep nothing from it.