A quote from Richard Curtis: “When I’m advising people about writing, I say that the biggest hurdle you have to get over is how bad your own writing is.” What he’s talking about is that first draft. So much of the time, after sweating blood over the first few pages or thousand words, when you read them they seem rubbish.
I still feel nervous when I start something new. I know it’s going to be clumsy and feeble, overlong, unfunny, lacking in any kind of elegance. The first draft pain never goes away. It’s even worse with comedy, with that immediate judgement hovering over you: “It’s not funny!”
The second draft remains hard labour. The idea still seems flabby, every word wrong. I feel sometimes as if I’m patching up the Titanic. Often it’s just willpower that keeps me toiling. I bet this is the same for most writers.
I think the best way to get through this is to stop thinking of each draft as being discrete, as a distinct stage. The process from the conception in your head to the finished piece is a continuum. It moves forward extremely slowly, incrementally, and the improvement in the quality of writing is imperceptible. I try now to think of the first few words or images in my head as being the first draft. Typing them up is a chore that has to be done. The second draft may be started in my sleep, on the train, or through an altered word on my PC. There are probably hundreds of drafts, all tiny steps forward.
Thinking of it like this removes a lot of pressure and some of the pain. If you set yourself a fixed number of stages, say five, and find that stage three is still no good, you’re going to be stressed.
I often spend about 20 minutes reworking something, move onto another project and come back later for another half hour. It’s more like chipping slowly at a piece of stone, revealing the statue bit by bit.
I hadn’t meant to go on so long about me. Back to Richard Curtis: “After you’ve been writing for a while, you know that when you get a finished film, that’ll be one-thirtieth of what you wrote on the subject. You mustn’t torture yourself with the fact that most of every day is spent writing stuff that’s not great. It’s basically all rewriting. Most of the process is to do with rewriting rather than writing.”
The quotes are from “Now That’s Funny” by David Bradbury and Joe McGrath, a fascinating book of interviews with comedy writers.