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The Hidden Messages in Drafts

All week, I’ve been exploring the Realm of Osiris, Egyptian God of the Underworld—a place writers often wander. (You may meet me there: I’ll be the one without a compass or map). 

We’re lured into this mysterious world by the elusive call of intuition, hunch, and instinct—reason has its place in writing, but not in Osiris’s realm—so, on this Tips for Writers Thursday, I’d like to offer a few suggestions about following those inner forces. In particular, I’d like to suggest some ways to use drafts of your work as guides. 

I like to think of drafts as full of messages about where my writing “wants” to go. About what is happening beneath the text, between the lines, what is pushing to be said. I read drafts not just to polish and hone my work, but to discover aspects of the work that may have escaped my notice. Here are some ways to do that.


Typos, misspellings, grammatical errors, punctuation problems: They can sometimes yield surprising insights into our material. Why did you accidentally type “plastic” instead of “perfect”? Or “She hurts downstairs” rather than “She heads downstairs”? Were you really just distracted? Did your fingers just trip up? Or is something else going on? 

When I go through my work, I don’t just correct these supposedly minor errors. I ask myself why I made them, what they might be telling me.

Structural Problems

Have you ever had a story that wouldn’t end? A chapter that was far shorter than the others? A passage that wandered all over the place? It is intriguing to explore what is going on in those places. Perhaps there is something you need to say but haven’t quite gotten to. Maybe you’re circling around something. Perhaps there is a presence in the background, sending your writing out of whack. Read those passages. Let them sit. Come back to them. Write. See where they take you. 


Why do you keep coming back to that phrase, image, or idea? Okay, it could just be habit: The easiest word to come up with is one you’ve already used. But redundancies may also speak to questions that aren’t being asked or points that want to be made. Patterns that emerge and re-emerge may be clues about what what isn’t emerging.

Switches in Tense

You’re writing away in the present tense, going for its swiftness and immediacy. But when you read your work back, you discover that you’ve unexpectedly shifted to the slower, richer past. Why? What happened in your text at the moment you switched. What happened in you? What does that shift tell you about your characters? Your plot? Yourself?

Messages from Your Characters

Halfway through my first novel, I discovered that my characters were spending most of their time arguing. I hadn’t set out to write about angry people. I hadn’t conceived of my characters as being particularly quarrelsome. But there they were, throwing insults back and forth.

When characters are doing things you didn’t intend or when you find  them unexpectedly changing appearance, age, personality, or gender, they may be telling you something. Our characters often know more than their authors about what needs to happen in a work. Listen to them.

Objects and Settings

Look at the objects your have written into your story. Consider the settings you have chosen.

Perhaps a married couple are having a discussion. Perhaps you chose a kitchen for the setting, simply because it seemed like a logical place for a husband and wife to be. Then, because it was in a kitchen, you had them cooking together as they talked. So he’s slicing beets, and she’s stirring a pot of stew.

You didn’t intend his hands to be covered with red juice as he sliced through the heart-shaped beets, or to have her witchily stirring a cauldron, but that’s exactly what you’ve done, whether you intended it or not.

The behavior of animals can also be telling in your work—the old dog who barks in the night at some unknown danger, the hawk circling over head, the ant that crawls across the table at dinner time. So can the weather: I once read a chapter back to realize that every time a particular character opened his mouth, the wind came up. 

I don’t mean to suggest that every error or image is a mystical hint of something deeper. Just that some are. That paying close attention to our drafts can deepen our awareness of underlying themes, meanings, and issues in our work.

And, as usual, I find I’m proving my point even as I’m making it. In the first draft of this post, where I intended to write, “Maybe you’re circling around something,” I wrote, “Maybe you’re circling around suffering.” How could I possibly ignore such a mistake? 


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Cryptic Messages

Thank you for the many interesting ways to cultivate a discerning eye for revising and developing a draft.

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I'm glad you found it useful,

I'm glad you found it useful, Kim.