Writers often bemoan blank page syndrome as the source of all their problems. But I think we have it twisted around. A lack of ideas isn’t what derails us; it’s the process of expanding on, tightening, and polishing those ideas that presents a challenge.
New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult says she doesn’t believe in writer’s block, and I’m inclined to agree. If you really had to… you could freewrite your stream of consciousness on the page and get something out, right? Blank page syndrome is usually not an ideas problem; it’s either a whitespace problem (caused by actually having too much time on your hands) or a motivation problem. These are both pretty easy to remedy.
My experience is that there’s a bigger and much scarier villain in the room, and its name is the second draft. Perhaps it’s my writing style; no matter how strong my outline is, my first draft still ends up looking something like this:
The second draft is the biggest obstacle between you and consistently publishing great content. Why is this?
Why second drafts are so agonizing
The second draft might be best described as “motivational whiplash”. After riding the ecstasy of pumping out hundreds or thousands of words in your first draft, you circle back around and discover that half of what you’ve slapped on the page wouldn’t pass an elementary school grammar test.
It blows. Sometimes I start second drafts wondering if I should just throw in the towel. I went to music school for six years, and during that time I was always hypercritical of my output. It’s an attitude I am still working to untangle.
As I work through my second draft, however, I find myself getting more and more hyped about my articles and what I want to say. And once you successfully traverse the second draft, you’re pretty much in the clear. Temper your second-drafting weaponry and you’ll not only write more articles, but they’ll also be higher in quality and have stronger arguments.
It helps me to organize my drafts into three stages and adopt a different mindset for each stage. So to help you dial in your writing process, here is the “three fast drafts” approach I personally use and take clients through, as well as some tips on tackling those vile and villainous second drafts of your own.
Three fast drafts: An overview
#1: Fast first draft
Your initial objective is always to go from blank page to not-a-blank page. To do this, play the game of getting words on the page as quickly as possible.
Going in with an outline helps, but if you’re dragging your feet on structure I suggest you go in and freewrite your thoughts and ideas to get things moving. Finding a flow state comes in handy here, and if I have a longer block of time free I try to kick out first drafts for multiple articles.
I suppose this is like one of those “How I write 10,000 words a day” articles you see floating around, except I’m never anywhere near that number. I might do a few thousand words of first drafts on a good day… but most of them suck, and I feel like that detail doesn’t get highlighted enough in articles about high writing volume.
I’m running a business, so unlimited writing time isn’t an option. But when I have this permission to be super sloppy, I can usually kick out between two and four first drafts in an afternoon. The key with writing first drafts is just to get the words on the page — and to adopt the mindset that this is your only objective for the time being.
#2: Surgical second draft
In the second draft, you go back through your dumpster fire of a first draft, and — with surgical precision (And energy!) — clean up the text and logic one line a time. Sometimes I go straight into this work after a first draft, but often the about-face of doing a thousand words in one hour and negative 300 words the next hour is painful, so I separate them out when possible.
Strong writers talk about how they spit out an article perfectly on the first pass. That’s not me. If my articles have a lot of citations, for example, I usually don’t have enough precise science or evidence laying around in my bookmarks folder to nail it in one pass. I’ve also found that it’s easier to cement my logic when the first draft has had a bit of time to marinate in my brain. Even just a couple of hours makes a big difference.
#3: Thoughtful third draft
Rejoice! The third draft is where you get to introduce luxurious wordsmithery and spend ten minutes thinking up phrases like “luxurious wordsmithery”. Your article makes sense, the words are on the page, and now it’s time to put the cherry on top and have your article sound more like you.Todd Brison has the perfect article on third drafts if you want more insights on this. The man’s writing is crisper than a freshly-opened can of Pringles, which for decades seemed scientifically impossible. Longer articles or rigorous journalism may require additional drafts, but I find that most of my actions in taking an article from idea to execution land in one of the three buckets above.
How to make second drafts tolerable
Second drafts are important. I might even dare to say they’re the tipping point upon which your article idea evolves from a jumble of thoughts into a completed piece. So how can we make the second draft more tolerable? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Keep your outline flexible.
When I teach writers and entrepreneurs how to write articles, I teach an outline-centric approach. But sometimes, the words and arguments that flow out of you in the first two drafts require that you adjust your outline — or completely rework it.
Leave no stone unturned.
As you slog along through the fires of Mordor, work through each paragraph until it is publication-ready. Only put in placeholders if you’re absolutely stuck. For example, if I’ve spent over ten minutes trying to track down one citation, I highlight the gap and move on.
Adopt the right mindset for whichever draft you’re in.
It’s important that you line up your mindset with whichever draft you’re writing. First drafts are about speed and sexy word counts, second drafts are about logic and positivity, and third drafts are about polish.
Article writing doesn’t have to be a slog. While technique and inspiration are important, having the right expectations for your writing process can actually be even more helpful in the long run when moving from idea to completed piece. Dial-in an approach to organizing your thoughts and you’ll go from analysis paralysis to actually publishing in no time.