Did your first-grade teacher ever tell you, “Neatness counts”? Of course it does. A piece of writing may be brilliant, but if it’s illegible, how could readers ever know?
Some writers take this good advice too far, however. For them, cross-outs, revisions, and deletions are cause for shame. After all, real writers know what they want to say and say it neatly.
This idea would surprise expert writers. “Writing is thinking on paper,” according to William Zinsser. Our thoughts sometimes go in logical one-two-three order. But if a topic is complex or close to our hearts, one idea leads to another, which reminds us of something else, which takes our minds—and our writing—in an unexpected direction.
Thinking on paper often involves several false starts and mental detours. However, readers usually don’t see them. A refreshing exception is the manuscript for The Westing Game. Ellen Raskin knew that children would wonder how she wrote this mystery, so she donated her drafts to her alma mater.
Her second-draft pages are covered with crossouts, arrows, and additions. (See http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/authors/raskin/intro.htm). I show students a marked-up page and ask, “Would a writing teacher be glad to see this draft?”
Some are shocked that the answer is yes. Why? Research shows that messy drafts tend to produce the best results because
• expert writers revise more than novices
• the best predictor of quality is the number of revisions a paper goes through
In Raskin’s case, the quality is very high indeed. The Westing Game won a Newbery Medal, the highest honor given to children’s literature.
So go ahead, make a mess as you plan and write your paper. If you try for perfection too soon, you’ll just short-circuit your thinking. You may even give yourself writer’s block. Instead, do as Raskin did: capture your ideas before you clean them up.