Why I don’t like the term “Rough Draft”

Posted: December 29, 2009 in Uncategorized
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I mentioned this a while ago, but nothing I ever write is ‘rough.’ Not even this post. Even though I’m writing it as I come up with what I want to say, I still won’t call it rough. One way to read what I’m saying is to think that I’m suggesting that everything I write, every sentence I construct, comes out of my brain perfect and without the need for revision. A lot of students think like that. I’m not one of them.

In Amadeus, part of the demonstration of what a genius Mozart was is that his compositions are without editing marks, coming out of his head fully formed and beautiful. We all wish we were geniuses like that. I know I do. But I also know I’m not that smart, not that kind of genius.

But still, nothing I write is ‘rough.’ I hate that term. I think my hatred started in high school, when I had to include a rough draft when handing something in.

It’s not that the idea behind the requirement was bad; the purpose was to teach rewriting, which is a great and important skill. But the language hurts the idea.I’ve always taken pride in the things that I write. I don’t just sit down and start typing with no idea of what I’m going to say. I work through my ideas in my head, or as I go, and I edit as I head on. That doesn’t mean that what I produce is perfect; it just isn’t ROUGH.

I think back to high school, and wonder what difference it would have made if they told me they wanted an earlier draft, rather than a rough one. I always thought, at the time, that a rough draft was one written by hand, and I hate writing by hand. So I’d type the paper first, writing the draft I was going to hand in as my ‘final’ draft, then write it out by hand for a ‘rough’ draft. So my rough draft was actually a later draft.

I asked a bunch of students when I taught freshman composition; I’m not the only person who wrote this way. But I taught those same students how to write multiple drafts. I taught them to do it even though I don’t do it as much as I should.

But it’s not that I don’t DO those extra drafts; I just do them in my head. I think that’s normal; it’s part of learning to internalize the steps. When you learn to drive, you’re taught to ease on the gas, to make sure you’re in gear, to check each mirror, etc. All these little steps that you take, the extra caution that comes with learning. It makes driving very tiring, at least when you first learn how. But slowly, as you gain more experience, you end up internalizing most of the steps, and eventually you do all those steps without thinking about them.

The same is true of writing. Most of learning to write is slowing yourself down and taking things step by step (much like logic, which is just normal thought taken much slower). So we teach freshmen to write multiple drafts. I hammer the idea into their heads so much that I actually had a student once say “I don’t think I need to do multiple drafts. I think three is enough.” That made me very happy.

But those are freshmen. They need to physically write out multiple drafts. They’re new writers. They basically have to re-learn how to write, for an academic audience and a discourse community, so they’re very new (hence ‘fresh’ men) at it. But I was a freshman in 1998. That’s about eleven years ago. Granted, I haven’t been writing in the same discipline the whole time, and haven’t even been in school the whole time. But I have been in school for 10 of those 11 years, and I’ve learned and relearned how to write during that time. Now I do a whole bunch of those normal changes, those reorganizations and clarifications, that takes freshmen two drafts to get around, only I do them as I write the initial draft. I’ve learned how to drive, and have internalized a lot of the work.

That said, I still did five drafts for one of the papers I wrote last semester, and four for the other. By the end, I had a pretty polished piece of work. But none of those drafts, not even the first, were ever ‘rough.’

They were just early.

  1. I don’t actually know anyone who calls them rough drafts anyway. The requirement is for a draft to be handed in with the final copy. Maybe it is different outside of Australia.

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