One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

I always struggle to find balance when I write a first draft. I’m either tweaking adjectives and commas so obsessively that I fail to move forward, or I’m plowing ahead so blindly that I write myself into a complete mess of poor pacing, character inconsistencies, plot holes, the works.

I think many writers fight this battle. We know rewriting a single paragraph seventeen times won’t help us finish the draft, so we plow onward. We know first drafts are messy — always! — but we still want to give ourselves sturdy building blocks to revise, hence the need to noodle and tweak. It’s quite the conundrum. So what’s a writer to do?

I have a little approach I’ve been using for my last two books (TAKEN, and its sequel) that’s been working pretty well.

You know that saying, “One step forward, two steps back,” insinuating that progress can never be made? Well, this is sort of the opposite. Let’s talk about taking ONE step back, and TWO steps forward.

Every time I sit down to draft, the first thing I do is take a step back. I review the words before the blank page–not all of them, usually just a chapter or two. I let myself tweak things that feel unnatural, but I try not to obsess. I rewrite anything unclear. I make sure the character’s motives, feelings, reactions all seem natural and believable. I double check pacing. I flesh out anything flat and lacking (usually setting). By the time I reach the blank page, I’m so rooted in where I left off, that moving forward is easy. (Actually, who am I kidding. It’s never easy, but it’s easier than if I’d just sat down to face the blank page from the start.)

Then I draft. This is the two steps forward part. I get down some new words. I don’t worry about anything but making progress. I work towards reaching The End, and I write until I lose steam. Then I close my laptop and walk away.

I repeat the whole thing the next time I sit down, reviewing and tweaking the most recent of words before moving ahead to write new ones.

For me, refining as I move forward is critical. The moment I lose faith or confidence in my novel is always the moment I stall. Usually it’s because of something relatively minor. Big Event happened in chapter 8, when it should have happened in chapter 6. The main character said X when he should have said Y. These things eat away at me unless I fix them. Sure, I could fix them in revisions, too, but when I feel something is off, I like to address it upfront rather than waiting for later. Knowing I have a clean-ish mess to deal with in revisions is more reassuring for me than knowing I have a massive mess.

Sometimes stepping back is necessary to move forward. It’s such a simple concept, and an easy one forget during the mad dash to reach The End.

It goes without saying that works for me will not work for everyone. Even still, the next time you find yourself hitting a wall in your draft, or doubting your words, it may be worth trying this little one step back, two steps forward dance. I’m a big fan.

Now tell me: How do you tackle first drafts? Do you step back often? Do you plow ahead? There’s no right or wrong answer, and that’s the best part about writing—it’s a highly individual and personal process!


16 Responses to One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

  1. Amie Mar 20 2012 at 6:30 am #

    Great advice, Erin! I’ve been trying this method myself, lately — at first I found that I was spending too much time on my step back, so the creative part of my brain was tired by the time I was ready to step forward. I think I’m working it out now, and have realised it’s about not letting myself spend too long there, but really just reading through. So this current draft is slowly getting there — step by step!

    • Erin Bowman Mar 20 2012 at 9:33 am #

      Yes! Overdoing the step back and then being too creatively drained to tackle moving forward is definitely a risk. It’s taken me awhile to differentiate between the times that I’m over-editing and tiring myself out, and the times that I’m working so much because something is truly broken. Like everything with writing, there doesn’t seem to be any hard or fast rule. 😉

  2. Julie Mar 20 2012 at 6:49 am #

    Great post, Erin! I always start out a session of drafting by re-reading the last scene (or more) to get myself back into the world of the book. Of course, a tweak here and there is unavoidable! I also go back and tighten when I can’t seem to draft anything fresh. Thanks for this great advice! 🙂

    • Erin Bowman Mar 20 2012 at 9:34 am #

      Yes! Going back to tighten is a great way spend time and efforts when you can’t seem to get any new words out. Heck, sometimes spending time in old scenes can inspire new ones! 🙂

  3. Debbie Mar 20 2012 at 9:41 am #

    I used to have that problem too and found taking part in National Novel Writing Month helpful for ploughing on because it forces you to reach a word count in a certain time. I try to set myself goals now to keep me moving on. I’m going to try the try the two steps forward one step back approach though as sometimes there’s things that I really want to tweak as soon as I write them!

    • Erin Bowman Mar 20 2012 at 7:27 pm #

      NaNoWriMo is great for plowing ahead and reaching a certain word count! Nothing like a tight deadline 😉 (Good luck with the one step back two steps forward approach when you get around to trying it!)

  4. Rowenna Mar 20 2012 at 10:38 am #

    I’m with Julie–I usually have to give myself a “refresher read” anyway, and find that I naturally make improvements while I’m doing so. By the time I hit the “blank page” point, I’m warmed up–it’s like starting your run with a brisk walk 🙂

    • Erin Bowman Mar 20 2012 at 7:28 pm #

      What a great analogy — that refresher read is totally like a warm up for the drafting!

  5. Alessa Hinlo Mar 20 2012 at 11:45 am #

    This is great advice. I do definitely believe in keeping forward momentum going but sometimes there are things you just have to fix or you can’t keep going.

    • Erin Bowman Mar 20 2012 at 7:29 pm #

      That’s exactly how I feel Alessa. If I plow forward when I know something is wrong, the thing that needs to be tweaked constantly lurks in the back of my mind, nagging me until I write it. I find the drafting comes easier if I just address it upfront!

  6. Angelica Mar 20 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    This is good advice and I sometimes follow it depending on the project. Sometimes I’ll skim through the entirety of what I’ve written before making minor changes as I go, but most of the time when I write a story I just re-read the last sentence or paragraph before continuing forward. For me if I start over thinking what I’ve already written I generally stall. By always moving forwards I’m sure to complete the project seeing how that’s always the issue that I have when writing. Getting to the end. But I think that I’ll try this method more often, it would certainly save time on writing the second draft which I absolutely despise.

    • Erin Bowman Mar 20 2012 at 7:30 pm #

      This is good advice and I sometimes follow it depending on the project.
      ^ You’ve mentioned something here that is so important, Angelica. “Depending on the project.” I’ve found that each book demands to be written in a different way. This one step back, two steps forward approach is working really well for me at the moment, but I’m sure there will be a different novel in the future that requires a completely different approach!

  7. Sigal Tzoore Mar 21 2012 at 12:52 am #

    I like the idea of one step back, two steps forward, Erin. I tend to plow on ahead until about a third of the book is done, and then I take a step back and over-think it. After which it is so difficult to get back! I leave behind me unfinished first draft corpses which I want to get back to but am afraid. Rereading them opens the way to my inner critic who spews unwanted and unhelpful opinions and a complete revision of the first third before I finally go on.
    I do wish I found a good way to finish a draft without all this anguish….

    • Erin Bowman Mar 22 2012 at 7:49 am #

      I think we all have a few of those “unfinished first draft corpses” lying around! *shudders* If you figure out how to finish a first draft without too much suffering, let me know! Pretty please?! 😉

  8. Sooz Mar 21 2012 at 9:48 am #

    Wow…we have really different methods. Yours makes WAY more sense. 😉 My problem is just that I have no idea what all my subplots and mystery twists will be until I write it. I tried detailed outlining…but the subplots and twists I came up with for the outline didn’t work on the page. :-/

    Do you outline? Or, if you do encounter something that won’t work as planned, will you go all the way back to early scenes and change it now or do that later?? (I am genuinely curious for my own writing…You sound WAY more efficient.)

    • Erin Bowman Mar 22 2012 at 7:52 am #

      I don’t outline. I’m terrible at it. I end up with “And then they go somewhere and then someone dies.” It’s pathetic.

      So like you, I end up discovering subplots and twists AS I write. This is exactly why I like to step back so often. After subplot X reveals itself, I just back and weave it in before going forward again. Same with twists. I’ll go back and leave a few subtle hints. Sometimes this work requires much more than just “one step back,” but I usually take it anyway (so yes, to answer your question, I’ll sometimes jump ALL THE WAY back). Addressing it sooner rather than later always makes me feel more confident and sure in the direction of the book.

      Of course, each book demands to be written differently. This approach has been really helpful for TAKEN #2. But I do have a WIP that I wrote all the way through, and now I’m weaving stuff in a rewrite. For the second time. But it’s more of a contemporary, so maybe genre limitations came into play? Who knows. This writing thing is so crazy 😉

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