Jack Kerouac is said to have written the entire manuscript for his novel On the Road at a single sitting, all improvised around a few set themes not unlike a jazz musician building on a set melody or chord progression. The manuscript itself seems to support this idea: created in just three weeks, it is a single piece of paper—a r0ll of shelving paper—120 feet long, and written entirely without paragraph breaks. Few revisions were made to the manuscript prior to publication apart from the creation of paragraphs and the correction of typos. Once published, On the Road became a bestseller and, arguably, was a turning point in the development of the twentieth century American novel.
As nice an image as this is, there are indications that it is not entirely true. The scroll manuscript exists, but the process of creation is debatable. While Kerouac himself perpetuated the idea of extemporaneous creation, others who knew him at the time add a bit more to the story, as did Kerouac himself in later interviews. In actual fact, Kerouac was a prodigious note-keeper, working and reworking ideas in a notebook or on bits of paper, that he would then arrange and rearrange. Most of the planning and drafting, we can infer, happened long before he ever fed the shelf paper into the typewriter.
This draft, by Isaac Newton for his work Religion gives a better sense of what drafting is really all about. The manuscript shows countless revisions, many in different inks, made over an extended period of time. Above all, Newton wanted to be understood as clearly as possible, especially in light of the fact that his ideas were often at odds with the accepted truths of the day. His desire was to communicate complicated ideas as precisely as possible and, as a result, the manuscript has many signs of his labour. The result was a publication able to bear critical scrutiny.
Most writing assignments you will be given during your student career will require the same kind of attention and organization which, like Newton and others, is conducted in an awareness of your audience, your writing form, and what you are hoping to communicate.
Brainstorming and freewriting are two good strategies for jumping in. As in the example from Louis Dudek’s draft of Atlantis, the early planning is often the most creative and most fun part of the writing process. With the goal of simply getting some ideas down on paper, your drafting doesn’t need to follow any narrative patterns or, as in Dudek’s example, even be words and phrases—if a doodle helps you get the ideas flowing, so much the better. Here Dudek uses a drawing of his topic, and octopus, as a framework for clustering a draft of the poem. (See pages 5 and 6 in Checkmate for a more detailed look at clustering.)
George Bowering’s drafts from the notebook for His Life, A Poem, are more traditional. The collection was awarded the Governor General’s Award in 2000.
David Hodgins’ and Carol Shields’ manuscripts are organized and easy to follow, in part because the authors left space around the text and between the lines for handwritten notes and edits.
Carol Shields The Stone Diaries was written on a typewriter and then edited by hand. Shields notes that, when writing, she works to produce only 2-3000 words each day, and will stop writing when she reaches that, no matter how long it has taken, or how engaged with the writing she is. The Stone Diaries, won numerous awards, including the Booker Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.
Albert Einstein’s draft for his Special Theory of Relativity (1912) is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History.
Mark Twain drafted a dramatization of Tom Sawyer, though the play never received the same critical attention as his novel.
Even Beethoven had to make drafts and revisions. His draft of the Emperor Concerto script shows signs be being written quickly, and then adjusted just as quickly.
Some writing is so familiar, it seems strange that it was ever written, edited, or revised. However, from this draft of the US Declaration of Independence, we see that Thomas Jefferson originally wrote “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” but later changed it to “we hold these truths to be self evident.”
All of these examples show that writing is a process and, no matter your level of expertise, drafting can be difficult and, at times, somewhat ungainly. They also show that drafting is personal, authors working in a way that best suits their needs and the demands of the content. Ultimately, taking time to draft is not only unavoidable, it’s the task of writing itself.