Everyone’s a critic.
You’d think, after 250 “Outsidah” columns — yes, this is my 250th “Outsidah” column — I could finally reliably write a first draft that doesn’t need to be edited, adjusted, corrected, or otherwise savaged. Or salvaged.
If I had more nerve, I would just write the thing and send it off “as is.” But I don’t have that kind of nerve. I’ve been writing for more than 40 years (you can search for “Doug Brendel” on Amazon and see the evidence), and in that time the greatest wisdom about writing I’ve managed to acquire is this: Your first draft probably isn’t final-draft quality. Or, to put it another way: Without an editor, you’re just an idiot waiting to happen.
So my wife Kristina reads the first draft of every one of my “Outsidah” columns, and suggests any changes she feels are needed. I typically go ahead and make her recommended cuts, because it’s exceedingly uncomfortable to sleep in the garage.
I live with editors in my professional life, too. I make my living writing direct-mail fundraising letters (let’s not call it “junk mail”) for charities and non-profit organizations. Every few hours, over the course of my work week, I’m making a different case for a different project for a different charity. It’s like being a defense attorney, arguing on behalf of a new defendant in every court hearing. Except that my clients, thank heaven, aren’t bloodthirsty murderers or savage rapists. Most aren’t, anyway. Most are committed to worthwhile causes, and doing good work. Housing homeless moms, feeding hungry families, enriching the culture with beautiful music, and the list goes on.
When I turn in the first draft of a fundraising letter, I feel confident it will work. It will raise money. Donors will respond to it. I know this because I’ve been successful at this kind of work for more than four decades. But inside that charitable organization, there are folks who somehow don’t think of me as God. They’re jittery about the words I’ve written. They want to change some of them. Sometimes, they want to change a lot of them. It’s outrageous, I know, but that’s how it is. And some charities don’t just have one person wearing reading glasses sitting at a desk passing judgment on my writing. They have 14. And each one has unique idiosyncrasies. (“I don’t like negatives.” “I don’t like contractions.” “I hate repetition, I just hate repetition!”) As a result, my first draft — that brilliant, impassioned, perfectly crafted masterpiece — spends the rest of its life as a faded archive somewhere deep in the recesses of my laptop. Meanwhile, a butchered, broken, bastardized version of it goes out to the donors, and raises, by my estimation, about 12% of what my first draft woulda.
I wish I could report that “Outsidah” columns and fundraising letters represent my only encounters with vicious, unnecessary censorship. But that would be fake news. Long before the “Outsidah,” I spent 15 years as a clergyman, and out of sheer paranoia about making a fool of myself in the pulpit, I gave the first draft of every one of my sermons to Kristina. She has no divinity degree, and no formal editorial training. But she is the one I would have to come home to after a sermon crashed and burned. So I always invited her to offer her feedback in advance. She would invariably scan down to about the fifth page, draw a big line across the text, and say, “Start here.” She was apparently living by the ancient principle of “The less religion, the better.” On the other hand, maybe my writing just took too long to get going. I mean, look how long you’ve already been reading this, and where has it gotten you?
These days, I’m holding my breath in anticipation of a new level of complaint about my writing: I’m about to release my first novel. The novel, Pleasure and Power, is a huge departure from the types of writing I’ve done previously. It’s a domestic drama, with a certain amount of sex, violence, and cussing. I had high anxiety about the first draft, so I asked about 20 people to preview it. Of course I was prepared for 20 raves — “Loved it!” “Don’t change a word!” — but did I mention these were intelligent, thoughtful, well read people? So I got loads of feedback. Good suggestions. So many, in fact, I really had no choice but to rewrite.
Rewriting your novel is like doing plastic surgery on your baby. Sorry, maybe that was too graphic. But hey, if you’re reading this, it means Kristina didn’t cut it from my first draft. Blame her.
Go ahead, read it and carp. Nit-pick to your heart’s content. I’m used to it.
Okay, that’s not true. I’m quivering with trepidation.
You never get used to it.
Doug Brendel writes whatever he feels like writing, from his home on outer Linebrook Road. And then his wife gets hold of it. Follow Doug’s heavily redacted posts by clicking “Follow.”