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Foul Papers to Fair Words

The other day I discovered the delightfully morbid phrase ‘foul papers’. Used when discussing early modern playwrights like Shakespeare, ‘foul papers’ are the messy working drafts scribbled straight from the writer’s imagination. Later they would be written up into ‘fair copy’, a nice, neat, civilised version of the playscript.


I love the term because it perfectly describes the frustration and loathing leading up to an adequate draft. The overthinking: is this actually a good idea? Should I just scrap it all and start again? Not being able to find the right word or description to slip into your scene. The knowledge that even once you’ve written ‘The End’ and sat back in your chair with a relived sigh, some editor or kind writerly friend will come along and run red lines through your work like rivers of blood. Even Sisyphus would weep for you.


It’s reassuring to think that even Shakespeare must have sat at his desk, ready to throw it across the room. Biting the nib of his quill, watching the candle melt lower and lower. The parchment before him half crossed out, ideas with question marks dotted across the page. Thinking, thinking, distracted by the roars of the bear baiting ring next door: How the hell do I get Antigonus off-stage?


We often believe a genius like Shakespeare wrote out scripts ready to rehearse. Someone like him couldn’t have drafts, those messy, horrible things writers speed through and forget for a few weeks. It must have come straight from his head. Just like it must for your favourite writers – not.


Writers are human. Even Shakespeare. We have the same disconnect between our minds and our words, which makes imagining so easy, but writing down the results so very difficult. You may see your story fully formed in your head, ready to become the multi-million-pound blockbuster it will doubtless be adapted into after selling thousands of copies. It’s when your pen or keyboard gets involved that the frustrating reality sets in.


Looking back at my own drafts, I’d certainly call them foul papers. I often start crossing words out mid-first draft, knowing their death is inevitable in the second. Worse, I’ll be halfway through a promising draft, or even finishing it off, when a glaring problem blinks out at me. The type that requires a rewrite of some, if not all, of my hard work. Foul papers are plural; there’s always a second, third, fourth attempt.


There’s two ways you can deal with them. Give up – or carve it out.


Neil Gaiman once said the first draft is you telling the story to yourself. The second is convincing your reader you knew what you were doing all along. This is where the best writing happens. Everything becomes deliberate; your tone, your choice of words, what you reveal when. The kind of stuff keen readers will dissect for years. The kind of stuff casual readers will come away from thinking, ‘what an interesting book’.


There’s joy in the process of carving it out, finding the story you were really meant to tell, even if it doesn’t end up looking like the blockbuster you saw in your head. Sometimes it’s better that way.


There’s a story inside those foul papers of yours. Make sure you find it.


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