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Single-draft Shakespeare

Some Authors Advocate…

writing only a single draft of a work, and then moving on. With concentration and training, some writers do learn to do that beautifully, but most never become first-rank authors. The most blatant exception of course was William Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Ben Jonson, a fellow playwright, both knew and loved Shakespeare personally. Jonson said, “players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand.’”

Why? For several reasons. As Jonson pointed out, sometimes Shakespeare made logical fallacies. “Many times he . . . could not escape laughter, as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him: ‘Caesar, thou dost me wrong.’ He replied: ‘Caesar did never wrong but with just cause;’ and such like, which were ridiculous.”

Jonson also complained that Shakespeare’s language was so strained, so convoluted, that his audiences couldn’t understand him. As a child when I began reading Shakespeare, my teacher assured me that his work was hard to understand simply because of the centuries between us. But Shakespeare was always opaque.

To Be or Not To Be

He sometimes strained in order to make rhymes to the point where the language broke—and he had to shore up a line with a word of his own creation. So that the average bumpkin in 1600, upon watching the opening of “Hamlet,” would have to ask, “What in the devil meaneth this?”

A third critique had to do with Shakespeare’s poor sense of pacing and his unfortunate sense of humor. Shakespeare sometimes wrote three pages of vapid dialog in order to set up a terrible pun that left the audience groaning. It wasn’t the puns that were so terrible, it was the pacing.

Having said this, Ben Jonson pointed out that he loved Shakespeare nearly to the point of idolatry. When Shakespeare wrote well, he left his audience breathless. No one before or since was been as eminently quotable.

Writing the Second Draft

I often wonder though, what if Shakespeare hadn’t been a “one-draft writer?” What if, instead of churning out two or three plays a winter, he had instead made multiple drafts of a single work? Would he have cut out the deadwood? Would he have written more clearly? Would he have caught his logical fallacies? Could he have crafted his own words more beautifully and powerfully?

Some of his plays, quite frankly, are eminently forgettable. His best are unbeatable. But some are like a gorgeous woman I once knew, whose lips were often marred by cold sores.

Most of us aren’t Shakespeares, yet I find that some writers still advocate the “one-draft rule,” the idea that we should write only one draft of a story and send into a sea of manuscripts, whether it will either swim or float to the bottom.

Personally, I care too much about my own writing to do that. I make several passes on each manuscript, as do the vast majority of bestsellers today.

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