First time right, or “all I really needed to know about writing I learned from a journalist.”

That’s a little bit of an exaggeration.

For the record, I am not, and never have been, a journalist. All of my professional writing is fiction. My degree is in English Literature.

I took only one writing class in college. It was non-fiction, but not specifically oriented towards journalism.

I have read very little on writing, although that little has generally been by journalists. My parents had a background in magazine journalism, and I’m sure that has had an influence both on my writing style and how I think about writing.

The thing about newspaper journalism (and to a lesser extent, writing for magazines and the internet equivalents of both) is that it does not have the luxuries of either space or time. It must be concise, and it must be produced quickly and competently, because it will not get more than a cursory editorial glance. I don’t know if this is true, but I have been told that the standard, at least back in the day, was twenty minutes from AP wire to press-ready copy.

First time right. You don’t get a second chance.

Fiction writing is in many ways different, and not just because space and time are not the same kind of luxuries, but that “first time right” is sound advice.

I see a lot of advice on self-editing, including some that suggest it isn’t really possible. I do, by the way, think it is possible, but not everyone can do it, because that kind of objectivity is hard, and no matter how competent, it’s not a substitute for a decent professional edit.

A clean first draft isn’t a substitute for that either, but it will save you time, and if you’re paying out-of-pocket for editing, it will save you money.

Some writers can’t work from an outline (I’m one of them), but if you can, it’s usually worth making one. It will give you purpose and keep the story arc of your draft tighter.

Turn on the grammar and spelling highlighters in Word (or whatever else you’re using) and pay attention to the little underlines when they pop up. Acquaint yourself with a style manual (Chicago Manual of Style is the one commonly used in publishing). If the writing program you are using does not have spelling/grammar checkers, get one that does. Seriously. You’re a professional, get professional tools. Even if you are a former spelling bee champion who has strong grammar and punctuation skills, you have idiosyncrasies and you make errors when you type fast. The highlighting saves time and spares you from sending out manuscripts with stupid errors. Keep in mind that spell-checks are not substitutes for a careful read-through. Notoriously, they don’t catch homophones. Sooner or later your heroine will bear her chest or bare her children if you rely on them, and you will be embarrassed.

Stop and look over what you’ve written every ten pages or so. Fix any errors you’re aware of. Some writers will go over the previous day’s work every day. I usually go over the whole thing every ten thousand words or so and adjust as necessary, particularly for consistency. Now there are some writers who can’t work that way, either because they get bogged down in the minutiae of revising, or they’re so tired of their own work that they don’t want to look at it anymore and give up halfway through.

If you can, it will usually result in a tighter draft. If you can’t because it stifles your process, it’s still worth trying to keep the spelling and grammar, particularly sentence structure, as clean as you can without becoming so fixated on the technical details that you forget what you were trying to write about.


Particularly since a lot of writing advice focuses on worrying about creative stuff in the early stages, and leaving the technical details for later. There is also no wrong or right way to embark on process. Some of us write at six in the morning with coffee and some of us write at midnight with wine. Some do both. Or neither. There are hacks that produce clean copy and brilliant writers whose drafts are a red-ink worthy mess. Both are probably exceptions, but they exist.

Not only does that clean draft save time in the edit and revision process (always a worthy goal), a finished looking manuscript is easier to read. Easier for a beta to find the holes in your plot. Easier for an editor or an agent to see if they might have potential interest in your work. Easier for you to figure out if what you put on the page is actually what you meant to say. For at least some writers, probably easier to produce a better book.


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