I want you to think about what you’re currently working on. A book, a short story, an article — whatever it may be. If you’re not currently working on something, think about the last thing you finished. Or the thing you hope to start soon.
Now let me ask you this: what is it about?
I don’t mean the plot. Don’t tell me who your characters/subjects are, who your audience is, why you decided to write your story. Tell me the point.
A book about a high school sophomore who writes letters to her missing sister is intriguing. But it is not the point of the book.
A book about the different ways grief changes a family may not be the most polished sentence (it’s six in the morning, cut me some slack), but it’s something much closer to its point, its message — the thing the author wants you to think about long after the book ends.
The better you know your core message, the more focused your writing will be — and the easier your revisions will seem, if you make it that far.
You should be able to boil down what your story is about into a single sentence. And if you can’t do that yet, then you’re not 100 percent clear on what message you’re trying to convey to your audience. And if you don’t know what you’re talking about, they won’t, either.
Does this mean you should stop writing if you’re not fully confident in your overarching point? Of course not. When it comes to first drafts without time constraints (e.g., NaNoWriMo), get the first draft out first. Worry about whether or not it makes sense later.
I’ve gotten into the habit of outlining a story I’ve already written, after the fact, to see if all the connections that need to be made have been made successfully. It’s what works for me. If everything fits and my story conveys the message I want to, the best way I know how, I’m satisfied.
If it doesn’t, and I have the desire, I enter revisions and set out to “fix” what didn’t work the first time.
However, I also understand the barrier of time constraints. My job requires me to write one to two articles per day each week. If I don’t have my article’s point nailed down before I start writing, there won’t be enough time to fix any parts of it that veer away from that message. And that’s bad.
So sometimes, your message has to come first. Headlines, titles, characters — all that has to come second. And many writers struggle with that. They know they want to incorporate the whole writing letters to MIA sister thing. But they have no idea how to build a much bigger story around that.
I’ve found, in my 12+ years (!) of drafting everything from novels to news briefs to press releases, that the easiest way to pick out the flaws in your writing, relative to your core message, is to write a first draft. Then you have something to look at as you’re doing that evaluation, instead of trying to picture in your head whether or not what you haven’t even written yet is going to work.
Is writing a rough draft that feels disorganized scary? A little bit. But do you know what’s even more stressful? Wanting to write something, but never actually writing anything.
My philosophy: write first, organize later. This is coming from a person who cannot get out of bed on time in the morning unless I’ve planned out by day by the hour the night before. It’s called a rough draft because it’s supposed to be a mess. Embrace that.
So, can you do it? Can you summarize, in one sentence, what your story is about?
If not … don’t worry. Just keep writing.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.