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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The brave new world of first drafts

I’m not worried about the future of writing. But I am wondering what'll happen to rewriting.

People will always write, and sites like — as detailed in this fascinating New York Times feature — are giving instant publication to thousands of instant writers. On every middle-school visit, I meet one or more young people — like the sixth grader I had lunch with this week at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington, Vermont — who are passionate about writing. Often they’re posting stuff on wattpad, or on fanfiction sites (fan fiction is a big part of wattpad’s content, but not all). If their stories are interesting and they post regularly, they can build up an active roster of fans.

This bridges one of the biggest hazards and dangers of writing: the isolation that we work in, and the self-absorption that tends to breed. If you were to eavesdrop on a group of young-adult novelists talking together at a conference, I can almost guarantee they'd drive you nuts. There are likely to be some sweet, thoughtful authors there, but you won't hear from them. The conversation will be dominated by people who’ll talk about little or nothing but how successful their work is, how many great events they’ve attended, and on and on. Honestly, I'm a pretty self-involved person — but if you talk at me or anyone else for half an hour and you never ask a question or learn one thing, how can you ever write anything worth reading?

But that’s a tangent. The thing I'm fretting about here is the impacts of instant online publishing on young writers' chance to discover the beauties of the writing process.

The 25-year-old author spotlighted in the Times piece has posted 278 chapters of her story “After,” and she's got more than a million readers — far more than any book of mine has ever had, and this is a fine good thing. She posts a new chapter every few days, often within a few minutes of writing it. The impression the article gives is that she writes and posts in speedy succession; and I think it’s fair to assume that most, if not nearly all, online self-publishers do that.

So? Am I finding fault with this incredibly dynamic new way of storytelling and publishing? Not exactly; I recommend wattpad, along with the veteran, first-rate website and magazine, to all the middle-school writers I meet. But I also tell them this: my experience has always been that any first draft is only a sketch.

I do my best to tap into a flow and energy that can give life to a rough draft, and that's vital. But it’s in the rewriting, the returning to the draft, the revising and revisiting of it, that I discover (or uncover) what the story really is, who the characters really are, and what the whole thing is really (if anything) about. Any working writer will tell you that. How does someone who posts each chapter within a few minutes of zipping it out ever discover this deeper reality?

What online publishing lacks is editors. You get reader feedback, sure — but that rarely if ever digs to the level of thoughtful criticism you’ll get from the rare, invaluable editor who is really good. And without that, in the long run how does a promising young writer produce, craft, really develop work that can have lasting value?

This is what I wonder about. I wouldn't mind instantly connecting to a million readers, though.

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