The Exploratory Draft

I’ve started doing something completely different. Instead of trying to write a story. I’ve begun simply to write. The writing is more like riffing or freewriting. I focus on the characters, or the situation, or the setting, or the emotions, or the back story and just go. My goal each time I sit down to riff like this is 1,000 words. I’m capturing some nice phrases and images in the process. I’m also capturing snippets of scenes. When I have sentences that I like, I copy and paste them into a separate document — the story.

It’s quite freeing to explore the possibility of the story in the riff draft.

It’s quite freeing to explore the possibility of the story in the riff draft. I’m free to write whatever I want. I don’t edit myself, as I’m prone to do. I don’t try to write the perfect sentence every time. I just go with the flow and let it all pour out. Most of it is useful because I’m getting to know the characters and setting very well. So even though I may be pulling out just a few sentences to use in the story, the rest of the time writing is not wasted. (Is this is how everyone does it and I’m just showing up to the party late?)

I was inspired to do this after reading a couple of related articles the same week. The first was an interview in the July 2012 issue of The Writer with Adam Johnson, whose latest novel is the Orphan Master’s Son. Johnson talks about the hard work of writing, of just doing it every day and getting stuff on the page. In his opinion, talent is something a writer can cultivate by putting in the hours at the keyboard. He explains that he writes at least 1,000 words per day and then moves only the good sentences into the actual story.

The same week I read the interview with Johnson, I stumbled upon the post, Losing the Plot, from Nanci Panuccio. She makes a great comment and it’s this:

We never know what we’re going to say until we start writing. Even if you do have an idea at the outset of where your story is headed, it helps to stay open to what your story is telling you about what it’s trying to become.

Panuccio suggests writing an exploratory draft that lets you inhabit your story and your characters through “successive re-envisioning.” Once you begin to see patterns or connections, you can begin putting the words into a structure.

So putting these two ideas together, I’ve begun writing exploratory drafts. It’s incredibly liberating to have the room and freedom to write whatever comes to mind and then move only the choicest sentences into the story. How do you do it?

Photo: MacKinnon Photography / Flickr Creative Commons

7 Comments on “The Exploratory Draft”

  1. This is fantastic. Hope it keeps being as productive and fun as it sounds like it’s been the past few days.

  2. Hi Tracy:
    This is exactly the technique that Anne Lamott uses in her book called “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” She describes the technique as writing a “postage stamp” description of a situation, person’s character or how a particular event unfolded. Sounds to me like you’re on the right track!

  3. Pingback: Data Mine the Work | Text Heavy | Tracy Staedter

  4. In my first draft I do absolutely no thinking whatsoever. I don’t look back ever, and I don’t look too far ahead either. So far when writing a first draft I’ve known where I want to end up and not how to get there. Writing the story, seeing it unfold, it’s my favorite kind of magic.

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