Karolina Wilk has an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in the Susquehanna Review, PennUnion, Maryland Life Magazine, and the Potomac Review blog, where she is an associate editor in fiction. She was a finalist in the 2016 Crazyhorse Fiction Prize and a quarter-finalist in the Nimrod 2016 Literary Awards. She works as a writer and editor and lives in Frederick, Maryland.
Karolina’s essay is part of our regular “Concerning Craft” series.
Some sculptors build their masterpieces by adding one piece of clay at a time, while others carve out their work from a large block of material. The same can be said for writers: some revise as they go, and others are serial drafters. I’m the type of writer who has to make her block of clay before she can even begin carving. The draft I consider my “first” (working) draft of a story actually comes a few drafts after what I call a “pre-draft”—the first words on the page.
We all have that vision of writing in the breathless state of mind where the words fall effortlessly onto the page in fully formed narratives—but that’s the ideal, not the norm. My writing starts with fragmented images that aren’t cohesive yet, and I struggle to get through that to the first full draft. It takes some introspection, procrastination, cajoling of my inner artist and shushing of my inner critic, and a self-imposed timeframe. I often skip around in sections when I’m stuck so I can maintain my writing momentum. I leave notes behind (like “add argument scene here”) to fill in later. When I have some words down, I can coax the story out.
I subscribe to Ernest Hemingway’s philosophy that “the only kind of writing is rewriting.” For me, the true writing happens in revision, so the pre-draft is a means to an end. It’s necessary to get started on the real work. I love diving back into a piece to explore a new element I hadn’t noticed before. I work in layers, each more refined than the last, until my story takes its full shape.
When revising, I consider every writing element, like characterization, dialogue, mood, language, and structure, in various drafts. This is the part of my writing process when I have the most fun and the least resistance—I write because I love to play with language and bring characters and places to life.
Advice for making the clay (writing your pre-draft):
Trick yourself into it. I don’t know about you, but something about sitting down to finally write that story I’ve been chewing on all week makes my mind go completely blank. Then I start thinking I should come back to it after doing the laundry… or walking the dog… Some writers I know bribe themselves to stay focused. My cure for the mind-wandering is to force myself into the chair (with straps, if necessary) and set a timer. I can do anything for 20 minutes. I might spend the first five pouting, but then: I’m writing!
Give yourself permission to write a “pre-draft” or “shitty first draft.” In Bird by Bird, her book on writing (highly recommended), Anne Lamott encourages writers to just write those “really, really shitty first drafts… where you let it all pour out… knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” When you have an idea, just put it into a draft. The kind no one else will see until you take another pass—or two, or three—at it. The kind that might have notes or missing sections or just images. The kind that gets the story from your brain to the page, allowing you to get started.
Advice for carving (revision):
Focus on the big picture first. Once you have your pre-draft, you need to shape the narrative. I find that getting too focused on smaller elements (like word choice or motifs) in early drafts prevents me from making sure the more important pieces are there (like plot and developed characters).
Save versions. If you get stuck on a later draft, it’s helpful to reread a previous (especially early) draft to remember your original idea. Who knows? Maybe you chose a direction that didn’t work in revision and want to revisit a previous draft. I save every version until I have what I think is the final draft—or close to it.
Take a break. It’s hard to revise when a draft is fresh. The words need to settle. You aren’t ready to kill your darlings yet. If you have time, take a few days before coming back to it. At the very least, take an hour to do something else before you look at it again. You’ll come back to it with a new perspective.
The most important thing is to make the writing work for you. If you’re more of a builder than a carver or something else entirely, do that. And remember to give yourself a little grace in the process. Writing is vulnerable, but you’re worth it. The words are important.
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