We’re not born knowing everything. We learn. And, after a while, we forget what it’s like to be a novice learner. We forget that first time experience. This is a problem for writers.
As my theater major roommate used to say, “every time the story is told is the first time for someone.” That means that we should expect it’s the first time for at least someone in our audience no matter what we write. New readers might not be familiar with the language, or the style, or other elements of your work. Unfamiliarity makes connecting harder, it makes it harder for the reader to understand your message.
Connecting with readers is kind of important. They stop reading if the connection doesn’t happen. And if they stop reading, why would they read the next one?
Lessons from language studies
Last year I wrote about learning Japanese. (link) Learning a new language, especially one with a different alphabet and phonics system, is a new learner situation. It’s an opportunity to remember what it’s like to start at the very beginning.
Last year I also made a mistake… I scaled back my Japanese practice while working on NANOWRIMO. I got out of the habit and didn’t get things ramped up again until this week. So, this week I started over. I started Learning Japanese from the beginning for the second time. In some ways, I revisited the new-learner experience. But because I knew a bit more than a true new learner, I also saw things differently. I could focus on details and elements that I didn’t the first time.
As a second time “first time learner”, I wasn’t as overwhelmed and I figured out what I needed to focus on for improvement. Starting from the beginning wasn’t just a restart, I could tune my understanding to a higher level than I had the first time I went over the material. And then, I realized this isn’t just a language learning thing, it’s a writing thing too.
Intros and abstracts
Abstracts and introductions are usually the first part of your work that a reader reads. But, they’re among the last things you actually write (or finish at least). There’s a reason for that.
As writers, we have to come into the work somewhere. We have a starting point. But, it’s probably not where the reader will start. We’ve just started the journey. So, we do not know where the end of the journey really is. We’re not prepared to write an abstract or introduction that will send the reader in the right direction. Generally, the place a writer starts won’t be the place the reader starts (at least not unless you want them to suffer the same headaches you do…).
We both might start with the same questions, but we won’t enter the work in the same place.
As a fiction writer, your entry point might or might not be near the beginning of the story. It’s where you first caught hold of the story, but that doesn’t make it the beginning of the story (often it isn’t). That’s something to be worked out while editing. Don’t worry about it in the first draft, just accept that it’ll happen and work it out when the time comes.
As a non-fiction writer, you may have a more concrete outline; because you have to (it’s for a publisher with a set format for instance), or just because non-fiction is often easier to think about linearly. So, you know where the introduction will be. You might think you know what it will be. But you’ve still got twists and surprises in front of you in the writing process (they’ll happen… eventually they’ll happen). So, even if you tried to start with the introduction, you’re going to need to go back and work on it later.
You have to start somewhere. You have some initial ideas. It’s probably helpful to write them down. You can even put them in a chapter called INTRODUCTION if it makes you feel better. That’s progress. But don’t be surprised if you rework it completely after the first draft is done.
Scrapping chapters and starting again
We hate to do it, but sometimes a chapter needs so much work that it’s better to scrap the whole thing and start over. There are reasons for this. Sometimes you find new information that changes what you need to say. Sometimes it’ll just be less work to start over than to “edit the chapter into shape”. It’s a hard decision, but sometimes it needs to happen.
Look at it as an opportunity. We’re building better and (probably) saving ourselves some headaches. We’re reworking the chapter. But we’re doing it knowing more than we did before.
One thing we shouldn’t do is completely forget the old version of the chapter. We learned something in writing it, and we’re doing ourselves a disservice by not taking away the things we’ve learned and using them to help us with the new draft.
Starting fresh on a chapter, even one we’ve struggled with, is an opportunity. It allows us to start fresh while incorporating new things that we’ve learned. Reworking a chapter may be the best thing we can do for our writing. (Just don’t let redoing chapters become an excuse not to go further in the process).
Learning from your first time (and helping your readers and learners)
Sometimes, going back to the start is helpful. It may mean scrapping a chapter and starting over. It may mean relearning lessons already learned. It may mean writing the introduction to your book after finishing the rest. Whatever your situation, you don’t have to go back to the start cold. You can bring the stuff you’ve learned with you.
When you go back to the start, you return to the space where first-time readers and learners will come into the work. You’ve been there before. Dig up those memories. Use them, and what you’ve learned along the way, to help your readers with their entry to the work. It’ll help them stay with you (and possibly even buy that second book (and the third…)).
Starting over isn’t easy, but it’s an opportunity. We can begin again, knowing more than we did the first time, and we can be reminded about what it is to be a first-time reader and learner. Knowing more and building better makes it easier for our readers to stay with us to the end.
Well, dear reader, I’m off to remember something else I’ve forgotten. Good luck with your opportunities, even the restarts. Sayonara, and I’ll see you next post.