Monday, April 18, 2016

Writing Advice Examined: Should you write like no one is watching?


by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

"Write like no one is watching" is advice I've started to see more and more in the last few years. I think this a great way to approach your first draft. It's similar to the advice of writing a bad first draft. But I think writing like no one is watching is only effective if you actually follow through on it and keep your first draft to yourselfwhich is where many of us struggle.



Sometimes when I have the house to myself, I turn the music up loud, and I sing and dance without care. Have you ever done this? Maybe like me you've also had times where you thought you were dancing and singing alone only to find someone from your family watching. When this happens, I get flustered and my face heats. Even if I try to carry on like I'm not embarrassed, I'm mindful of every wrong note I hit, every spazzy dance move.

My first pass at writing a story is full of wrong notes and spazzy moves. I would never get anything done if I thought someone might see my manuscript before I could fix it! Knowing that the first draft is for me alone helps me push past all those debilitating questions that crop up as I try to write. Is that bit of dialogue totally lame? I'm not sure my grandmother would approve of that word choice. Will anyone even relate to this?

July 2015 writing retreat. If I'm working on a 
first draft, I won't even sit next to a trusted 
fellow writer.
But as a young writer, here's where I struggled: Sometimes I'd written something that seemed particularly clever, and I was so eager for someone else to tell me it was good that I would temporarily forget that I had written it just for me. This put others in a tough place. If they said something wrong (which anything other than, "This is absolutely amazing!" filled me with doubts) I would grow discouraged and stuck.

If you choose to write like no one is watching, which I believe is a helpful way to create, I think the only way to make this practice effective is to actually not let anyone see it instead of saying you won't ... but then sharing bits and pieces anyway.

In On Writing, Stephen King says, "If you're a beginner ... let me urge that you take your story through at least two drafts; the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open."

Out of context, that sounds like you're supposed to write your first draft with your "door closed" (meaning without input from others) and then open your door and receive criticism before you write the second draft. But in the fuller explanation that follows this statement, King's advice is actually to write a first draft where you're just trying to get the story down without regard for what others might think. Then after a break, he suggests you edit your first draft with others in mind. Not until after you've done that first round of edits does he recommend looking for feedback.

I've found this system works very well for me. My first drafts have almost no description because I'm writing the story for me, and I can see everything just fine in my head. But when I work on my second draft, I'm mindful that others will read it and that just because I can see everything fine doesn't mean they can. So I make changeslike adding descriptionthat will help others to see the story as clearly.

Not every writer works well like this, though. I know lots of writers feel garnering feedback during the first draft process makes their story stronger. If this is you, I would especially  love to hear about that in the comments section! Are your first drafts private things, or do you believe in getting help from others even as the story is forming?

37 comments:

  1. Ah this is great! My first drafts are ALWAYS private, especially when I'm still testing the water on the idea and just begin to plot. When I'm unsure about a certain character or a plot I think is overused I tend to go online and see what's out there. I also read a lot of blog posts on story ideas when I'm still forming them. My favourites on this blog are 'How do you know if your story idea is The Idea' and 'How to Get In The Way of Good Ideas'!

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    1. I'm glad you've found Go Teen Writers to be a helpful place, Andrea!

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  2. I always like getting help from trusted friends and family members and colleagues, but if it is best just to do the first draft (I'm working on a script as well as a book of poetry at this time, rather than a novel,so in my comments from here on in I will be referring to either the script or poetry book) as if no one is watching, then I will work on that as I suffer from a neurological condition which lends itself to me beign anxiety prone, so any advice at least writing wise I can get regarding how to really whistle while I work, is appreciated here. Ciao.

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    1. I've found it to be really helpful. I still feel anxiety when I pass it off to writing friends, but it's a vulnerable thing to show someone something we've created, so I think that's normal. By waiting as long as I have, I at least feel like I've done the best I can with the story.

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  3. Usually I do not keep my first drafts private and I allow my friends to read it right away. Lately, however, I've been wondering if this isn't the best way for me. I get discouraged quite a lot when looking over my first drafts just because they are so terrible and need so much work. So I think I may start keeping my first drafts private to minimize that feeling of fear that they won't like it because it's so terrible.

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    1. One of the reasons why I've continued to keep my drafts private is for the reason you mentioned - they're not good and they still need a lot of work. That's just the nature of a first draft. My writer friends are busy, so I like to minimize what I ask them to do. It makes much more sense to have them read the book after I've cleaned it up a bit!

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  4. In my first drafts no one tells me what to do. Lol. After writing and rewriting I show it to my friend. She isn't bossy and telling me what to do, but she tells me my mistakes. Of course, I need a real editor. I hate to admit it, but publishing a book seems impossible to me at the moment. It just seems tough! I just don't think it will ever be good enough. I'm not a quitter, though. I'm going to keep trying.

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    1. I totally get that, Gianna, and I've been there. I think all writers have! I talk about my story a bit in this post on publishing (http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/p/how-do-you-get-book-published.html) but as hard as it is to get published, it's not impossible. I had no special connections, no know-how, and it still happened for me. Keep at it!

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    3. I have a Google account now, so I will have no need to post under Gianna anymore. I messed up the last comment, so I deleted it.

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  5. I like feedback during all times of the writing process. A good critique just gives me more drive to write!

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    1. I know a lot of writers feel that way about writing groups where they bring chapters each week and workshop them. If they didn't have that deadline, they would have a hard time getting the book written. I'm a closed door writer so those kinds of groups have never appealed to me, but they work for lots of writers!

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  6. I have my mom read the first draft as I write it (when she has the time). This way she can help me with writer's block when I hit that midpoint.

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    1. That's a big advantage of having someone know what you're working on!

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  7. I have 2 friends and 2 friends only who see my first draft as I write it.

    One is a friend I've had for over ten years. All through middle school and high school, we wrote books together in the form of letters going back and forth as the characters. She's already seen my messy, icky drafts for years, so my drafts now are nothing she hasn't seen before. Actually, my worst draft now is still better than what I was writing back in 7th grade.

    The other friend is a girl I've known well for about 5 years. She doesn't write, and she doesn't read a ton of fiction. But she's very wise when it comes to tact and she's very supportive of my writing.

    In other words, these are two friends who I not only trust completely, but they are both people who are rather wise when it comes to dealing with a writer friend.

    I post whatever I write each week on a shared Google docs for them to read. While I'm drafting, they say NOTHING besides how much they love it and they want the next chapter unless I ask. If I ask, usually if I'm stuck and the draft isn't working and I don't know why, then they'll point out what they think might be the problem. There are times, their support and their constant calls for more is what gets me through a draft. They keep me from getting too discouraged and quitting.

    But, this only works because of who they are and the way they handle things. I have other friends, and even my family, who don't get to see the first draft. Because they would try to critique it while I'm still doing the first draft, and that would discourage me.

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    1. I love this, Tricia! We all need friends like that :)

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  8. I have stopped showing people my first drafts. I am in the middle of brainstorming a story idea at the moment, and I ask people for ideas and I share some details here and there with my sister (she's 10 and an avid reader), but I don't even share a ton of that with people because that's basically the rough draft of the rough draft :).
    Once I get the first draft edited, then I run it by my sister, who will go through and point out things that she didn't understand/were spelled wrong/weren't well described, which is infinitely helpful.
    After that, I edit it again. I typically don't let people read the story while I'm editing, because that just makes me nervous.
    Thanks for posting this! I love this blog. :) Have a great day!

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Lydia! I'm similar about story ideas. Usually I give myself time - a few days or few weeks - to mull it over before I feel ready to talk about it.

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  9. Love your thoughts!! Makes good sense to me.

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    1. I know it's not for everyone, but it's sure worked great for me!

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  10. Sometimes I try to keep my first draft a secret. It doesn't usually work. :) I can't seem to resist the temptation to tell someone else about my story, and having someone else interested in it gives me motivation to keep writing even when the story doesn't seem to be working.

    All the same, I do sort of wish I hadn't started to share my current first draft with anyone, since the story has taken some really unexpected turns and become pretty messy as a result. :)

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    1. It's very hard not to share! Unexpected turns are part of the fun. You'll figure it out!

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  11. To be honest I seldom share my writing unless anyone specifically asks. I have a friend at my school (who also follows this blog) who I talk to about writing every now and then. Still I haven't actually showed my WIP to anyone. As much as I'd like some feedback I'm a little worried about sharing it and I don't want to unless I'm VERY happy with what I've written XD

    Thanks for another great post! Really enjoying this series :)

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    1. Thanks, Charlotte!It's fun to have a local writing friend even if you're not yet at the place where you're exchanging critiques :)

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  13. I completely understand how it is to not want to sit near anyone at all when you're writing. I can't stand if even my sister is on the same couch with me while I'm writing, even if there's no chance she could be reading --- it's just the feeling between my shoulder bones that distracts me. Lots of personal space is good at any time, but especially when I'm working with invisible people. My family doesn't quite understand this, but we've gotten so we have a compromise that sometimes works.
    I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who needs space to concentrate!
    (First comment deleted because I couldn't edit it for a typo)

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    1. Even if your family doesn't totally get it, I love that they've found a way to be respectful of what you need. How awesome, Sophia!

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  14. I usually let my close friends and family read my work, but only after I've gone over it several times already :)

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    1. That's worked really well for me. I think it's when I get the most useful feedback too.

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    2. Yeah - the people who know you best, and can sympathize with what you're trying to say :)

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  15. I know I already wrote a comment, but I'm writing another. Blasting music is what I do!! Haha. :D Lol. When I'm frustrated when I'm writing, I just turn the volume up, and listen. Nothing violent. Lol.

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  16. No one sees any speck of my writing until I am finished.... if they come and look over my shoulder I close it and glare at them until they go away.

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  17. I found someone who relates to you. My first drafts have 0 description. The only person who I let read my writing is my friend. At first--she knows this too--I was better at writing because she was just skimming the surface. We were apart for a year or so but when we saw each other again all we did was write. She's improved so much! She's incredibly descriptive and her story ideas have improved too. At first I was jealous even though she was my best friend. But her story doesn't move along fast like mine. We just have different writing processes

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  18. This is a HUGE struggle I have. I want to publish one day, but my writing style definitely isn't something that would be compatible with the general public. I love archaic, flowery language, and I place more emphasis on the beauty of the storytelling itself than on fast-paced, action-filled writing style that seems to have taken off recently. Often, it feels like when I edit my stories to make them publishable, I'm cutting out all the pieces that make it //my// story and I don't really enjoy it any more. :/

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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