Doug's Blog

Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

The brave new world of first drafts

I’m not worried about the future of writing. But I am wondering what'll happen to rewriting.

People will always write, and sites like wattpad.com — as detailed in this fascinating New York Times feature — are giving instant publication to thousands of instant writers. On every middle-school visit, I meet one or more young people — like the sixth grader I had lunch with this week at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington, Vermont — who are passionate about writing. Often they’re posting stuff on wattpad, or on fanfiction sites (fan fiction is a big part of wattpad’s content, but not all). If their stories are interesting and they post regularly, they can build up an active roster of fans.

This bridges one of the biggest hazards and dangers of writing: the isolation that we work in, and the self-absorption that tends to breed. If you were to eavesdrop on a group of young-adult novelists talking together at a conference, I can almost guarantee they'd drive you nuts. There are likely to be some sweet, thoughtful authors there, but you won't hear from them. The conversation will be dominated by people who’ll talk about little or nothing but how successful their work is, how many great events they’ve attended, and on and on. Honestly, I'm a pretty self-involved person — but if you talk at me or anyone else for half an hour and you never ask a question or learn one thing, how can you ever write anything worth reading?

But that’s a tangent. The thing I'm fretting about here is the impacts of instant online publishing on young writers' chance to discover the beauties of the writing process.

The 25-year-old author spotlighted in the Times piece has posted 278 chapters of her story “After,” and she's got more than a million readers — far more than any book of mine has ever had, and this is a fine good thing. She posts a new chapter every few days, often within a few minutes of writing it. The impression the article gives is that she writes and posts in speedy succession; and I think it’s fair to assume that most, if not nearly all, online self-publishers do that.

So? Am I finding fault with this incredibly dynamic new way of storytelling and publishing? Not exactly; I recommend wattpad, along with the veteran, first-rate website and magazine teenink.com, to all the middle-school writers I meet. But I also tell them this: my experience has always been that any first draft is only a sketch.

I do my best to tap into a flow and energy that can give life to a rough draft, and that's vital. But it’s in the rewriting, the returning to the draft, the revising and revisiting of it, that I discover (or uncover) what the story really is, who the characters really are, and what the whole thing is really (if anything) about. Any working writer will tell you that. How does someone who posts each chapter within a few minutes of zipping it out ever discover this deeper reality?

What online publishing lacks is editors. You get reader feedback, sure — but that rarely if ever digs to the level of thoughtful criticism you’ll get from the rare, invaluable editor who is really good. And without that, in the long run how does a promising young writer produce, craft, really develop work that can have lasting value?

This is what I wonder about. I wouldn't mind instantly connecting to a million readers, though.

A mouse, a science fair, and vague endings
One good paragraph about spring
 

Comments 2

Guest - etienne on Friday, 28 March 2014 10:34

That is absolutely true. We try to teach our students to reread themselves, in case they missed something or wish to add something. Writing is always good the first go around, but it can get even better with revisions!

That is absolutely true. We try to teach our students to reread themselves, in case they missed something or wish to add something. Writing is always good the first go around, but it can get even better with revisions!
Guest - Marie on Wednesday, 09 April 2014 11:29

It doesn't seem as common with online "original fiction," but editors play pretty big roles in a lot of fan fiction communities. Often fanfic writers have close relationships with other writers and they will "beta read" stories for each others. When I was heavily involved in a fan fiction community in high school, I became good friends with my beta reader and beta read for several other writers, as well.

I've also found that most people who post fan works or original works online reread and rethink what they're writing as they write, meaning that the finished product isn't really a "first draft" because there aren't exactly any drafts involved. That's how I wrote most of papers in college and grad school, as well; I went back over what I was writing as I wrote it. Computers make it easier to edit as you go, instead of completely finishing a paper and then going back to make major changes. If halfway through a paper you think "I need to rearrange all of this and change my thesis statement," you can just cut and paste.

It doesn't seem as common with online "original fiction," but editors play pretty big roles in a lot of fan fiction communities. Often fanfic writers have close relationships with other writers and they will "beta read" stories for each others. When I was heavily involved in a fan fiction community in high school, I became good friends with my beta reader and beta read for several other writers, as well. I've also found that most people who post fan works or original works online reread and rethink what they're writing as they write, meaning that the finished product isn't really a "first draft" because there aren't exactly any drafts involved. That's how I wrote most of papers in college and grad school, as well; I went back over what I was writing as I wrote it. Computers make it easier to edit as you go, instead of completely finishing a paper and then going back to make major changes. If halfway through a paper you think "I need to rearrange all of this and change my thesis statement," you can just cut and paste.
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