Writing and Polishing the First Draft

Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. — John Steinbeck, U.S. writer (1902-1968)

Getting Your Ideas Down

Once you have identified your audience and purpose, brainstormed the ideas you might want to include, done any necessary research, and determined the best order in which to present your ideas, you are ready to write your first draft. Write it as quickly as you can. Don’t worry about correct punctuation or spelling — or even sentence structure. Lock your critical alter ego — with all of its inhibiting deprecations — in the closet so that you can get your ideas down. If you can’t think of a particular word you want to use, temporarily put a synonym in the spot — or leave a blank.

Different people prefer to work in different ways. Some prefer writing in longhand (and perhaps even prefer a particular kind of paper or writing implement); others prefer the keyboard; still others prefer dictation. If writing is a relatively new experience for you, you might need to try various methods to see which enables you to get your ideas down most easily.

Even if you are not composing directly on a computer or word processor, at some point you will probably want to convert your document to electronic form. Doing so will greatly simplify revision and editing. As you are keying in your composition (whether you are composing your first draft or preparing your final copy), be sure to save your work often and have at least one back-up file (more are even better). You might want to create one file on your computer’s hard drive and one or more others on disk. As you work, save your file often — in all of its locations. Few things are as disheartening as having to spend hours — or days — recreating a document that cannot be retrieved due to a lost file or a damaged disk. Generally, precautions can prevent such catastrophes.

If you completed the planning that was described in Lesson 2, you probably have all of your ideas laid out in order. Writing your first draft, then, is simply a matter of writing a few sentences about each item on your list.

It is not necessary to start at the beginning of your composition and write about each idea in order from beginning to end. In fact, the opening is likely to be one of the most difficult parts to write. If there is a section where you know what you want to say, write that part first. Get something down. A blank piece of paper can be extremely intimidating; divest it of its power over you by removing its blankness.

It is also important that you write on only one side of your paper. Doing so will enable you to physically cut and paste your draft if you want to reorganize it. If you write on both sides of your paper, it will be impossible for you to see your whole composition at once.

Perhaps you didn’t finish the planning stage. Perhaps you couldn’t get all of your ideas neatly sequenced. If you are stymied with planning, go ahead and start writing. Do what you can. If you think of single words or phrases that you might want to use somewhere, jot them down so that you won’t have to use your mental energy to remember them. If you know how a sentence will start but don’t know how it will end, write the part you know. You are likely to be surprised at how some words beget others.

Looking at Your First Draft

Once you get your first draft down, examine what you have written. (If there are some parts that you feel stuck on, just write something very rough in that space for now. Write down the ideas you want to include even though you aren’t satisfied with the wording.) At this point you are still focusing only on the content, on your message. You should not be concerned yet about punctuation, spelling, or other aspects of mechanical accuracy. Of course, it is fine to correct any errors that you spot. Keep in mind, though, the speed with which you wrote your first draft. Don’t short-change the polishing of your message. There will be plenty of time later to edit.

Here are some questions to use in evaluating your first draft. You might want to consider these yourself (before you let your alter ego out of the closet). You will be better able to consider these questions objectively if you set your piece aside for a few days between writing and critiquing. Conferring on your first draft with a partner will better prepare you to evaluate your own work in the future.

For Persuasive Pieces

1. Have you started with something your audience will agree with?

2. Have you moved very gradually from one point to the next, keeping your audience with you all the way?

3. Have you led your audience to a point where they will know, feel, or do what you want them to? (Have you accomplished your purpose?)

For All Pieces

4. Have you captured your audience’s attention?

5. Have you provided necessary background information?

6. Have you used vocabulary and sentence structure that your audience will understand?

7. Does your composition develop logically?

8. Have you effectively supported your ideas, perhaps with examples that will create vivid sense impressions?

9. Does your conclusion leave the desired final impression?

10. Are there parts of your composition that you should eliminate because they don’t contribute to your purpose? (Cutting words that you worked hard to write can be painful, but both you and your composition will be stronger for it. Look especially carefully at the opening paragraphs. They are likely to contain deadwood that you wrote as you were getting warmed up.)

11. Are there places that would not be clear to your reader? (This is a good one for your alter ego that has been locked in the closet. Answering this question requires you to read your composition not as its author but as someone who is seeing it for the first time, someone who has your audience’s viewpoint and knowledge, someone who can respond to what’s on the page — not to what’s in your head that you intended to put on the page.)

12. Which parts of your composition seem strongest? Should you do even more with those parts?

13. With what do you need help at this point? (Don’t forget any spots that you just roughed in.)

14. Is your title (if you have one) appropriate and interesting?

Getting Feedback

At some point — perhaps at more than one point — you should confer with someone about your first draft. This will give you valuable feedback because it will show you what your words actually communicate. You might want to improve your piece as much as you can before you seek feedback. Especially if you are stuck, however, you might want to seek help earlier.

For the conference on your first draft, you want a conferee who will be honest with you. It might be helpful to have someone who is not knowledgeable about your subject; that will better enable you to see what comes across in your composition. You might want to confer with more than one person in order to get feedback from a variety of viewpoints.

A good way to begin the conference is for you to read your piece aloud to your partner. This helps to ensure that focus remains on the content and does not stray to mechanics. After you have read your piece, have your conferee tell it back to you. This lets you hear the message that was received. If your conferee misinterprets something or gives a point disproportionate importance, you should ask yourself if that was the fault of the piece itself or of your conferee. Ultimately, of course, you — the author — are responsible for determining the final content of your piece, for deciding what you will change and what you will leave as it is.

As part of your writing conference, you will probably discuss many of the numbered questions above. You want to find out what works in the piece and what doesn’t. If your conferee says after hearing the piece, “That’s great!” that may be nice to hear, but it isn’t very helpful. You want specifics. Whether you get them or not is largely up to you. If you appear defensive and disheartened with each suggestion that is given, you will not encourage constructive feedback. Even though you may sincerely want suggestions, some conferees are reluctant to give them. In such cases, you might be able to elicit feedback with questions. Ask specifically about those areas that most concern you. Avoid yes-no questions. Instead of asking, “Was this part clear?” ask, “What did this part mean to you?” Although it may be clear to your conferee, the meaning he or she derived may be very different from the meaning you intended.

At some point you (in your objective, critical mode) or your conferee should strive to assume the mindset of your audience. Consider each sentence of your composition as your audience will receive it. Is anything likely to be misinterpreted? Will anything be offensive? Will your purpose be accomplished?

If you are getting the idea that revision is time-consuming — perhaps taking longer than writing the first draft — you are right on target. Revision is a critical part of the process — the part where you are polishing your message to maximum effectiveness. Compare writing to painting: The artist first sketches in the main forms of the composition — then adds details. Picture an artist with brushes and palette adding details, refining, adding highlights of color to create subtle nuances. This is what you are doing as you polish your first draft.

Remember the flow chart from Lesson 1:


The loop between “Revise Content” and “Confer” is not a path that you will travel only once. You will make the circuit many times, conferring often with yourself and perhaps several times with each of several other people.

When you find that you are quite satisfied with your composition, read it aloud. This will help you to notice awkward phrases, overused words, and successive sentences that begin or end in the same way. Keep reading and revising until your composition flows smoothly.

How do you know when you’re finished revising? When you are satisfied that your purpose has been accomplished, that your ideas progress logically and are well supported, that everything is clear and understandable, and that your composition reads smoothly — then you are ready to move your focus from revising to editing.

Next Week: Editing I: Usage


A. Focusing only on your content — not on mechanical accuracy — write your first draft. Get your ideas down as quickly as possible, using whichever medium works best for you.

B. Evaluate the effectiveness of your first draft, using the questions included in this lesson — and perhaps others as well. Make any changes that will make your composition more effective.

C. Select someone who will give you honest feedback on your first draft. This might be the same person who served as your conferring partner in the prewriting stage, or it might be someone else.

D. Read your composition aloud to your conferring partner. Then have your partner tell the composition back to you. Draw out any feedback the person has to give about what works well and what needs improvement. Ask specifically about any areas that concern you.

E. Repeat the revise-confer cycle until you are satisfied with the content of your composition. (Do not send your composition to your instructor. Personal feedback on individual projects is beyond the scope of this course.)

Lecture 3 Quiz