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Writing a first draft

The problem with academic writing is that it has so many conventions we are in danger of allowing them to stifle our creativity and productivity when we write.

Years ago I read Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer (published in 1934 and still in print). What I took away from that book, and I have been practising ever since, is doing what I can to ensure that my ‘creative mind’ is in the ascendant when I write a first draft.

When I work in academia, I read a lot, think a lot and plan a lot, and draw upon all that when I write my first draft. I plan down to paragraph level, usually with a bullet point summarising the thrust of each paragraph. But then I enter my composing state, saying to myself ‘I’m getting my ideas down’ and ‘go for it’.

I write quickly, not worrying about whether my writing is ‘perfect’. In any case, I only know several paragraphs later whether my writing is heading in the right direction and that I have a coherent narrative in support of an argument. Stopping to polish my prose would only slow me down and there are dangers in polishing too soon. Polish too early and the writing is in danger of becoming fixed. Either you don’t want to change it (because that would involve unpicking all your work) or you do change it, which is time consuming. Better to leave your writing in a rough state until you are happy with the overall flow of the argument between paragraphs. Then you can polish it. That might involve ‘sleeping on it’ and reviewing your work the next day with fresh eyes.

I’ve discovered that it’s not just me that writes this way. Many of my colleagues do. We’ve found this approach not only encourages free-flowing writing, which breathes better on the page, but we don’t waste so much time. It involves ‘letting go’ of all the worries when we write that first draft knowing that our ‘critical mind’ will knock our writing into shape later. We might advise you to do the same.

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