The true magic of writing happens in the third draft

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Any toddler with a crayon can scribble out a few words and call it writing. But what makes the difference between hacks and heroes when it comes to prose you can’t put down?

Answer: It’s the third draft.

Oh, you thought great ideas alone seal the deal? Rarely. Ideas come easily and are forgotten fast. The first draft? Nah. Completing a first draft is an accomplishment, but is it “great” writing? I think not. The second draft is getting close, but it’s largely The Editor’s Draft. It provides clarity. It does not usually move people.

Unfortunately, most people call it quits after the second draft (or even the first). This often happens because content factories of today incentivize writers piling together words as quickly as possible, craft be damned. Call me naive, but I still believe the difference between “content creator” and “writer” is a meaningful one. The latter is worth pursuing.

“Writing” — at least, the words that readers call writing —happens in the third draft. Let’s go over five final tweaks you can implement as you take a last lap around what you’ve written.

1. Find the Right Metaphor

Imagine you’re having a conversation with a friend about her relationship. Her seven-year marriage, which had been going so well, seems to be falling apart. Yesterday, the couple attended therapy for the first time.

“How’d it go?” you ask.

“It was really rough,” she answers.

You won’t think twice about those words, but what your friend has just said is actually impossible. The adjective “rough” literally means “hairy,” “uneven,” “not smooth or level.” For the first 200 years of its use, “rough” only came up in this context. But humans are creative. Over time, we stretched our words into places they don’t belong in a literal sense:

  • “The lecture was flat.”
  • “This movie is fire.”
  • “Your premise is foggy.”

There is little to no conscious reaction in our thoughts when we hear these phrases. We immediately translate them to their intended meaning:

  • “I was bored by that lecture.”
  • “I really enjoyed this movie.”
  • “I don’t understand what you are writing.”

So what’s the takeaway from this? Isn’t one word just as good as another when it comes to getting your meaning across? Nope. Recent studies have discovered we don’t just see or hear words: we experience them.

Emory University learned that when subjects read a collection of metaphors involving texture, the sensory cortex areas of the participants’ brain lit up. In a NeuroImage study, Spanish researchers discovered subjects’ olfactory cortex created fireworks when they read words with strong odor associations, such as perfume, coffee, or cinnamon.

In a New York Times article, Annie Paul says:

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

Looking for mind control? When you write well, you’ve got it. How powerful you are in this area of brain surgery depends largely on the quality of your metaphor.

First Draft: The meeting was tense.

Third Draft: The mood of the meeting was that of a slaughterhouse… post-production.

2. Wipe Out Your Badjectives

My friend Joel Schwartzberg taught me this word — badjectives.

Joel wrote an incredible book for writers called “Get to The Point.” Put this on your to-buy list. In the meantime, let’s take a brief look at one of his most actionable lessons: removing badjectives.

A badjective is simply a bad adjective. What constitutes a bad adjective? Like all writing, the answer depends on the context. Is the word “good” a bad adjective? The real answer is: maybe. Maybe your character’s speech is too simple to aim for a word deeper than “good.” Maybe you’re about to compare two meals and “good” is only used in comparison to the “spectacular” second meal.

Instead of entering a circular debate on when a word is “bad,” let’s stick to this basic premise: A lazy adjective is always a bad one.

Can you guess where you find lazy adjectives? Bingo — they’re hastily dashed out in the first draft and missed in the high-level rearrangement of the second. Are all adjectives from the first draft bad? No, but any of them could be.

Here’s a good way to get rid of badjectives: read your writing aloud. When the words “not good” impotently slide fall off your tongue in the middle of your deep exposé into the treatment of animals for American food, it will be impossible not to make the change.

First draft example:

“There were a powerful king and a beautiful queen on an English throne; there were another powerful king and a beautiful queen on a French throne; In both countries, everybody thought life was going well.”

Third draft example:

“ There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fairface, on the throne of France. In both countries, it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things, in general, were settled for ever.”

—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

3. Balance Your Short and Long Sentences

Read this closely.

You are driving a car. It’s a red car. It’s a fast car. You feel the power on the highway ramp. Your heart pounds. Your adrenaline pumps. After a while, though, your pulse descends into resting rate as you take your place among the other vehicles, which are all going your speed. Did you slow down? You check the meter. No change. What happened?

You got used to the speed.

It’s important to remember repetition is the enemy of good writing. Such repetition is a natural consequence of your first draft, but it can be quashed in the third draft when you’re able to see and feel your sentences with fresh eyes. Remember the car. Did the speed itself invoke your senses? No. Instead, your physical reactions came when you moved from slow to fast. It’s the contrast of two speeds, not the speed itself, that arrests your attention and doesn’t let go.

Writing nerds recognize this as hypotaxis and parataxis. Parataxis literally means “to arrange beside.” This type of sentence is simple. Your words line up. Then they march.

Hypotaxis is different. When you’re using hypotaxis, your points can feel more flowery and meandering. Commas, subordinate clauses, and adjoining points fill this type of language, which can often come across a bit hypnotic to the reader who will find himself slowly floating behind every word.

As a writer, switch speeds often. Jerk your reader around. Tease them. Then, lull them into a forest of green, lush adjectives where you will quell their frustration with smoothly refined adverbs and clear nouns.

Third draft example: Read that section again. It took me three drafts to arrive there.

4. Double-Check the Hierarchy of Your Sentences

Back when you were in middle school, you likely learned about an important component of a sentence called a subordinate clause. A straight-laced, glasses-wearing man probably explained all about how they… well… you don’t remember. You weren’t listening. You filed subordinate clauses right along with the advice of your mother — probably not very useful.

Now that you’re grown, worldly, and understand your mother was actually right about every aspect of life, it’s time to re-examine subordinate clauses as well.

You already have a leg up on your middle school self because you now know the word “subordinate” in other contexts. What does a subordinate do in the workplace? He provides additional support or context to the ordinate.

Consider the difference in these sentences:

The dog ran.

Panting, the dog ran.

Spit hanging from his gnashing teeth, the dog ran.

Again, it’s important to point out neither of these sentences is necessarily “better” than the other ones. What is best at any given time depends on your style, genre, argument, and hypo/parataxis balance. Subordinate clauses are simply tools that allow you to tie one idea to the next and swiftly transition from thought to description to narrative.

Subordinate clauses are terribly effective, with one unfortunate downside: Your readers will forget them right after they read. This is due to the difference in facts and feelings. Think about the last time you recapped a TV show for a friend:

“OK so Character 1’s husband dies. She’s figuring out how to deal with it. She joins a grief group, and she meets a new friend — Character 2. This new friend seems weird, though. It looks like she might have been involved in Character 1’s husband’s death.”

This is the exact premise for Netflix’s series “Dead To Me.” Scan your recap once again? You didn’t say a single subordinate clause! Why? Because recaps are about facts.

However, facts do not bewitch the brain. This is why the writers of “Dead To Me” bothered to name the characters. This is why the set designers chose a specific color for the room. This is why the costumers carefully selected each outfit. These are all subordinates of the ordinate story. Subordinate clauses elicit more emotion in the reader.

Emotion is good.

5. Purge Your Writing of This One Vague Word

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in modern writing.

It started in self-help, I think. Writers and speakers who are firmly planted in the self-help genre are potentially targeting every person in the world. In order to do that, they often must be extremely general in their approach. In order to do that, they often use a single lazy word to fill in any desires, pursuits, or other details of the audience member’s life.

That word is “thing.”

One of my new good friends wrote this sentence in a draft:

“Like anything in life, relationships are better shared.”

This sentence is error-free, technically. On first reading, I slid right past it. In fact, I almost missed it the second time as well. Then I thought: “This is the last line of the section— why is it so forgettable?”

Every piece of advice has already been written by someone. Indeed, you’ve probably already read it all. So why keep reading?

We keep reading to see valuable clues about life in a new context.

When you use the word “thing,” you’re more likely to make the reader think: “Wait, I’ve read this before.” The word “thing” is too vague to impact our memory. It’s forgettable. Too many “things,” and a reader checks out and looks for another post.

Going back to my friend’s sentence, what could we write instead?

“Much like a chocolate milkshake with two straws, relationships are better shared.”

This might not even be the best example. Thanks to the infinite nature of language, we have thousands of options. However, I like this example because of what we learned about rewiring the brain. The brain sees, smells, and tastes the chocolate milkshake. Mmmmmm…

First draft example: Everything was impeccable. I didn’t see a thing wrong with any performance.

Third draft example: All of these performances were impeccable. I didn’t see a false note anywhere.

— Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar Acceptance Speech

Now that you’ve got down the principles of writing a good third draft, let me tell you some depressing news.

Most people who write will never consistently publish good work.

Why?

Time.

For great writers, the work done in the third draft must happen for every piece, every time. It doesn’t get easier. It doesn’t get faster. When the baby is crying and dinner is burnt and you’re hungry and the boss from your “real job” won’t leave you alone, you’ll want to skip the hard stuff and just hit publish already.

I worry you’ll avoid the effort required for better-than-average writing.

Please, go prove me wrong.

This article first appeared on Medium.