First Draft Tips

o-kay, es-say!

One of my brothers is currently a high school student in his junior year, and English is not his thing. He prefers math because it has definitive right and wrong answers, with formulas to follow that work every time. Now, he has to write an 8-page term paper worth like 20% of his grade, so I offered to help.

The other night, he came up to my room with his thesis paragraph, which he had to submit in advance. I remember thinking that having to submit at multiple points through the writing process was a huge pain during high school, but looking back I see the point. It’s incredibly easy to get overwhelmed with big projects like that, especially your first or second time doing them. Just writing a thesis statement, though? Not quite as terrifying.

My brother’s thesis paragraph was…a start. I don’t want to knock him too hard, but he said himself that it was a lazy first draft. I don’t think he realised when he brought it to me how much more work I was going to make him do, in part because he didn’t even realise how much work needed to be done. He started making what I call plaintive sighs, and then when he asked what “plaintive” meant, I made him look it up in my handy-dandy dictionary. I was highly amused. He was highly exasperated.

So, I’d like to throw out a few recommendations to make the whole “first draft” process easier. I know it’s supposed to be a no pressure thing, because it is, after all, only the first draft, but in working with my brother I realised how much more work we set ourselves up for when we don’t even try in that first writing.

Without further ado (that’s my phrase of the day), I present Madeleine’s First Draft Tips!

1) Brainstorming

This probably sounds like an obvious one, but I always used to dismiss it. Even now I don’t care for “brain webs” or whatever other kinds of diagrams they used to teach us. However, I am a HUGE fan of the free write.

This isn’t even just for first drafts; really, it’s for any time I’m stuck. I take a fresh sheet of paper, and at the top I write my prompt, or the sentence I left off on, or the question I’m trying to answer. That helps to direct my thinking and it gives me something to go back to. Then, I set a timer. Sometimes it’s for five minutes, sometimes it’s for ten, but whatever the length I keep my pen moving and my ideas flowing for that time. I know that I’m not going to use every single concept that I jot down, but some of them will be useful. The act of writing and just trying to keep up with my thoughts gives a voice to the connections that might vanish like smoke if I tried to take my time and analyse them.

I like this method of writing over webs or bubbles because it’s more transferable. I’ve already put my idea into words in a sentence, and if I can just re-pot into like a shrieking Mandrake into my paper, I will. Sometimes it needs some tweaking, but I think it’s easier than trying to fill out an idea floating in a bubble.

2) Answer questions

This goes hand in hand with brainstorming; it gives me somewhere to begin. If you told me to sit down and write a paper about Middlemarch right now, that’d be similar to throwing me into the sea without a lifejacket. “Write about a novel” isn’t much of a direction, but oftentimes that’s all we’re given. So, I narrow the topic for myself. If I have complete freedom in choosing my topic, I start with a scene I like. Then the question is, what do I like about that scene? What themes can I pull out of it? Why are they important?

Asking questions is a good way to squeeze out any general or generic statements, as well. My brother is writing about status, its limitations, and its factors in Mansfield Park. If he starts with a statement as simple as “Social status is an important element in Mansfield Park“, that’s not saying anything (he didn’t do that, thank goodness). We’re all guilty of writing those vague, filler statements. They rarely make a final cut. So, why not skip a step and avoid them from the beginning? Answer the questions that the filler statement begs. Whose social status? Why is it important? What kind of commentary does that offer, that social status is a primary aspect of the novel?

That’s a simple example, but I hope it accurately demonstrates the idea.

3) The BAR method

I hesitate to offer this one, because I relied heavily on it in high school, and then at college I realised it wasn’t flexible enough to fit every paper. Not everyone is writing a massive academic paper, though, so for high schoolers or those taking a Gen. Ed. Sociology 101, this might work.

I learned the BAR method my freshman year of high school from a history teacher who was, unsurprisingly, big on writing. It stands for Background, Argument, Roadmap. Your thesis statement/paragraph starts with background, or perhaps more accurately, context. DO NOT do a “From the beginning of time…” or “Through all of history…” statement. I know it’s tempting. Nothing is going to irritate a teacher or professor more, though, than a statement that general, and usually inaccurate, at the very beginning of a paper. If you have a fun fact or a quotation, this is the moment to use it. Think of this statement as a set of brackets: This is the space I’m working in! This is my context!

The argument is the heart of the thesis paragraph. It’s your actual thesis, what you’re trying to argue or display or analyse. If you’re having trouble because things are feeling too spread out, try to fit your thoughts into a one-sentence “this is what my paper is.” Or, try explaining it to a friend. Start with “I’m arguing that…” and then put it in as few words as possible. Whatever sentiment comes out is the one that’s most important, and that’s where your argument is.

The final piece, roadmap, is the piece that I usually abandon in favour of other formats. In high school, though, it worked. This is where you introduce your subtopics. Suppose I’m writing about the use of scenery in Jane Eyre. I want three different scenes that demonstrate the scope of my argument, so my roadmap specifies that I will be discussing the Red Room, Lowood School, and Jane’s bedroom at Mr. Rochester’s. Now my reader knows exactly where we’re going, and more importantly, so do I. It’s like planting an outline right there in your paper.

This is the disclaimer: sometimes, a three-pronged essay isn’t going to make the cut. Most of my BAR papers maxed out at four or five pages; I never could have stretched them to the eight pages I started needing last semester. When you have those bigger projects, don’t be afraid to mess with your format. If you can’t figure out a format at all, then write the rest of the paper first! It’s easier to do an intro when you already know what’s going to happen.

4) Use short sentences

First drafts are all about ideas and the connections between them. I tend to get lost in my thoughts, and then when I write them down they’re incoherent, hardly decipherable to anyone, including me. If I try to fit too many ideas into one sentences, I’m likely to lose all of them. My solution is to try and keep sentences short and clean in the first draft. Every idea has its own space that way, and nothing slips through the cracks. This way, in my second or third drafts, it’s easy to see clearly where my focus shifts or where it gets off track. I can delete superfluous ideas and combine or connect related ones easily.

It’s much more difficult to unravel a lengthy sentence of four or five clauses and try to remember what I was thinking when I wrote it– what were all the nuances I was trying to capture? Lengthy sentences tend to pop up in my brainstorming, when I’m writing as quickly as possible in order to keep up with my thoughts, but I try to keep them out of first drafts. I’m not as likely to lose concepts or connections from my brainstorming, because I almost always brainstorm and draw up a first draft in one session. I usually take a break between my first and second drafts, though, so I can’t rely on myself to remember exactly what I was thinking in writing the original. I need it to be crystal clear in order to confidently pick up where I left off.

5) Grammar

I know that some of you groaned at this point, and I apologise. It’s tempting to throw grammar and other technical considerations out the window when you know you’re not writing a finished product– no one will ever know. Every single draft, though, is an opportunity to clean up grammatical and syntactical errors. The fewer I make to begin with, the fewer I’ll have to find when I’m polishing. At every stage of writing, it’s important to look for those tiny errors that are the difference between an A paper and a B+. The more times I proofread, the more confident I can be that there are no typos or incompatible noun and verb tenses flying under the radar.

I also consider every draft as an opportunity for writing practice. I used to have a dance mistress who would say “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.” Practicing something wrong develops bad habits that only become more difficult to break the longer they’re permitted. When I write in any capacity, papers or fiction, texts or diary entries, I’m aware of my grammar and the mistakes that I’m most likely to make, so that I can train myself out of them.

While we’re talking proofreading, I also want to share my favourite proofreading tip: read backwards. Start with your last sentence and work backwards to the beginning. That way, your eyes don’t glaze over technical issues because they’re following content.

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I hope this helps, O writers of papers! These methods have helped me grow as a writer, so if I can offer them to anyone else and speed up their process a little, I’m glad to. If you have any other good tips for first draft writing, let me know in the comments below!

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