The Creative Independent New here?

Maggie Nelson on first drafts

How do you edit your own work? What happens after you finish a first draft?

I was just listening to someone today on the radio talking about the importance of writing a “vomit draft,” just getting it all out without looking back, without worrying over good-sounding sentences etc., or else you might re-write the same paragraph 100 times without ever getting anywhere. I thought, that sounds like really good advice, the kind I probably give all the time. But I don’t do that.

I’m saying all this to explain that I don’t really edit as a separate process from writing, which makes the whole notion of a “first draft” a bit of a myth—whatever first draft I’d be willing to show others has usually been worked over quite a bit. I don’t like to show people things in progress. Like, I really don’t like to. My partner jokes all the time with me that I can’t even admit I’m ever working on anything for fear I’ll kill the project, and that’s pretty much true. A lot of makers are private like that. I think I feel that way because I often don’t know what I’m doing with a subject—like, I really don’t know—for a long time. Years, even. And then once I know, I might have to go back through what I’ve written and, like, carve a book with a whole different tone out of the thing, or change the nature of the speaking subject, all kinds of big heaves. So it feels foolish to describe anything to anyone or show anyone anything until the whole process has played itself out. (There are exceptions, of course—if I’m really losing heart, a smart friend’s eyes ​might be the right thing.)

I prefer to turn whole books in to editors or agents and say, basically, take it or leave it. All of my books have been this way, more or less. Which isn’t to say people don’t then help me edit—they do. It’s more to say that all the editing and writing that gets me to something that might be called a first draft feels very important to me to protect. For whatever reason, this feeling has only deepened as I’ve gotten older.

The vomit draft, I mean. Mostly I write some, and then each day I go over what I wrote the day before and make it sound better, try to make its thinking better. I input all the changes by hand to a bunch of pages I’ve printed out, then I make all those changes to the computer file, and then if I get to the place I left off the day before, I can forge ahead. If I don’t, I don’t. Somehow it all churns on.

About the Author

Maggie Nelson is the author of five books of nonfiction including The Argonauts (2015), The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011), Bluets (2009), The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial (2007), and Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007). Her books of poetry include Something Bright, Then Holes (2007), Jane: A Murder (2005), The Latest Winter (2003), and Shiner (2001). The Argonauts won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism and was a New York Times bestseller. The Art of Cruelty was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Bluets was named by Bookforum as one of the 10 best books of the past 20 years. Jane: A Murder was finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. In 2016 she received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant.