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That first draft …

Posted by on October 10, 2012

When should you stop researching and start putting together that all-important first draft? Researching your family history can be fascinating and enjoyable, but at some point you will need to weave it all together into a coherent story.

In January, I set myself the task of finishing a first draft by the end of the year. By September, I hadn’t really started. I kept thinking that I didn’t know enough ‘facts’ to start writing, and that there were still too many significant gaps in the story. I had become one of those people who talks a lot about writing, but never actually does any (though I could tell myself that I was working towards starting writing …).

So after one of our regular group meetings at which I again reported having done no writing at all, I decided enough was enough.

Must just start writing!

Looking through the notes from our Writing Family History course, I see that our tutor, Andrea Stuart, advised us to have a ‘military campaign’ to organise and order our material before we started to write. This is good advice. But I didn’t follow it. I decided that spending a long time organising my notes and newly acquired filing cabinet would be just another form of procrastination.

I had to just jump in there and write. I have much of the material for the first section of the book, and I usually remember where most of it is. I have my various notebooks, reference books and documents spread out on the floor and often have to rummage amongst them to find the relevant information. Sometimes I dream about the well-ordered filing cabinet advocated by Andrea and have to resist the urge to take a trip to the nearest stationery store.

I’m working to an outline, but it’s a loose one. I find that the writing is developing more organically and following its own path. At the start of the writing day, I review what I’ve done so far (without getting bogged down in editing or rewriting) and think ‘Where do I need to go next?’

It’s very much what I’ve recently heard the writer Josh Swiller describe as a ‘kitchen sink draft’. His advice is to ‘Throw every damn thing in there. If you aren’t sure something belongs, if you aren’t even remotely clear what the point of a certain tangent is, in it goes.’ (Read more of his writing tips at Josh is talking about writing fiction, but I think the ‘kitchen sink draft’ advice may work as an approach for me. It’s easy to become so absorbed in perfecting our outline (or organising our filing cabinet, or tracking down that elusive but possibly non-essential ‘fact’) that we never actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

Throwing everything I know about my great-grandfather into the first section of my draft is helping me to see how much research I’ve actually done and where the serious gaps are. I’m shaping my material into something coherent, and while it is very far from perfect, it is satisfying to get something on the page.

It’s a start. It will give me something to work with. As Swiller goes on to say: ‘The goal with the next drafts is just to be a little better each time … This takes patience because some of the drafts will make you aghast. But if there is a kernel in there that excites you, trust that it will bloom in time.’

Amen to that.


3 Responses to That first draft …

  1. Clare Travers

    Thank you for an inspiring post, Tracey, from the person who, as you know, has come up with every trick of procrastination there is! Someone said that ‘perfection is the enemy of done’ and it really is advice I would do well to follow with my own project. I shall enjoy looking up Josh Swiller for further illumination as to how to get going.

  2. Margaret McAlpine

    I will own up to working well enough, with my documents in a constant muddle, especially the electronic filing. Unless one is writing a huge scholarly tome it surely isn’t such a handicap? Somewhat inefficient perhaps, but time is not money for us. And I wonder if people are aiming for too polished a first draft? Mine was disappointingly poor, when I reviewed it after a gap of several months, but not beyond remedy, although sometimes I feel like a medieval stone mason grinding away to achieve ever diminishing final results.

    • Tracey Messenger

      Thanks Clare and Margaret for your comments. Clare, I think I shall have to have ‘perfection is the enemy of done’ on a post-it note on my wall! But I really do advise just getting stuck in.
      Margaret – you have inspired us all with the amount you have already done. It’s encouraging to know that even historians don’t have perfect filing!

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