Downton Abbey and Backspace: First Drafts

First Drafts, Downton Abbey StyleDownton Abbey might just be the best argument for writing your first draft on paper instead of a word processor.  Here’s why.

I don’t know why I’m still watching Downton Abbey.

I could blame the show’s inexplicable allure on its ensemble cast of characters.  I could also mention the lavish costumes, attention to detail, or a slew of attractive accents, but none of this really explains why I care who stole Lord Grantham’s snuff box.

So in an effort to better engage the past five seasons of plodding historical drama, I’ve tried to notice small details in the background.  One of the things that stuck out is the way these characters write: always on little squares of thick, yellowed paper, always with assured pen strokes and a minimum of mistakes.

Why is it that people in this time period could write so clearly on their first try?  I think it’s because they lacked something that word processors have made us take for granted – and no, I don’t mean Clippy – I mean “backspace.”Clippy on Downton Abbey

It turns out the ability to remove and replace words immediately has a dramatic effect on the way we write.  Sherry Turkle, a leading researcher in the effects of technology, wrote in a 2005 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education that “it is possible to manipulate text on a computer screen and see how it looks faster than we can think about what the words mean.”  (Click here to watch Turkle’s most recent TED Talk on the subject – if, like me, you’re slightly addicted to TED Talks.)

Downton Abbey and Microsoft Word collided when Doug and I began writing the first draft of our co-authored stage play.  One of the things I appreciate about working with Doug is that when he writes, he writes – by hand.  At any given moment he may have two or three composition books with him filled with different projects.  By contrast, I’m used to typing my drafts into a word processor.  Here’s the first draft of the scenes we’re working on:Guess which one is use to writing first drafts by hand?

You can guess which of us these drafts belong to (yes, mine’s the one with scribble all over it).  But in spite of the frustration obvious in the many scratches, writing the first draft of my scene on paper had some important benefits:

1.  I couldn’t revise while I wrote.

Your goal in the first draft isn’t to create a polished product all at once.  But writing in a word processor makes the temptation to fix perceived mistakes hard to ignore.  Writing your first draft on paper can free your writing process from your own internal critic, making it easier to create your first draft.

2. I lived more in the characters’ world.

Writing on paper made it unfeasible to edit the writing for style or consistency. Instead, I was able to focus on the characters, their reactions, and the setting. Your first draft should be time spent with your characters, not with your expectations of good writing.

3. I knew when I was done.

Instead of crafting a scene and tinkering it to perfection, I just wrote the first draft. Using a pen gave me no other option but to start where the scene began and finish where the scene ended. This meant that all the drafts of the scene are distinct from each other. This broke the writing process down into manageable chunks and made it easier to devote time to the project.

When you start your next writing project, consider writing your first draft the old-fashioned way.  Lady Grantham would be proud.

Do you prefer writing or typing your first draft? Let us know what works for you in the comments below.

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