Make Your Clay

Earlier this week I finally had a chance to catch up with a dear friend. We went for a walk on the beach and talked about writing. Since she has taken my writing classes in the past (that’s actually how I met her), she reminded me about something I tell my students at all levels: “make your clay and then worry about details later.”

What do I mean by this? A writer’s draft is the medium of our craft which we shape and refine during revision. The real work of writing comes during revision. As writers we need to make our clay, meaning getting the words out of our heads and onto paper where we can then work and rework those words into a finished manuscript. If we were painters, we would have brushes, paints, palette, and paper or canvas to use to create our work. If we were potters, we would begin with a lump of clay and mold, shape, and work in details.

Writers, too, need something to work with–something to shape, trim away excess, add in detail, refine and illuminate. So I encourage all my writers to finish (or nearly finish) a draft before they focus on revising. Why? It’s easier to trim away the excess and add in details, develop a character, refine a plot line, and so on, if you have your basic three-part structure in place. It’s not set in stone. Word processing programs make it (thankfully) easy to move, cut, and add (and return to a previous version if necessary). But, once the words are in black type on white paper or screen, it gives the writer something to see and work with, much like the clay used by potters and sculptors.

Having something concrete to shape takes away the tension of revision for newer writers. Viewing the draft as something that includes debris or flaws to pick out takes the pressure off of creating a “perfect” first draft. The key word is “first,” since many writers create multiple “drafts” before a polished piece is sent to an editor. Incidentally, the editor then refers to that much-revision MS as the “first draft,” since it is his or her first go-round in editing it.

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