IT IS CERTAINLY a plausible construction of the work of journalists to say that when they write for newspapers they are doing a first rough draft of history. It is harder to describe what they are doing when they write for a book like The Pursuit of the Presidencey 1980, published a very short time after the events it chronicles, and before anyone's day-to-day impressions have had a chance to crystallize. "A new draft" is what Benjamin Bradlee's foreword calls it. This judgment seems to me about right for this collection of specially written essays by Washington Post writers on the election they have just covered, a book stronger in description than analysis, gathering up in summary form what a talented group of reporters learned during the long campaign of 1980 rather than exploring thoughts or questions or ideas that the campaign may have touched off in their minds.

The book is organized more or less chronologically, ending with election day. It provides recognizable portraits of the main participants and an assessment of the impact of major events on the strategies and the fortunes of the various candidates. More fragmentary and episodic in its coverage than the standard Theodore White election year reconstructions of the '60s, The Pursuit of the Presidency 1980 is a lot faster onto the newsstands.

Even an avid follower of presidencies and elections will find evidence of exceptionally good work in these pages, and some mild surprises. I had not known, for example, that the two young Georgians closest to President Carter, Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell, are not themselves personally close, as Edward J. Walsh says. I did have a dim awareness that -- as Walsh also says -- President Carter "is the kind of man who seldom . . . gets the benefit of the doubt from the reporters covering him." I wish someone had explored that theme more thoroughly. If it is so, why is it so?

Ronald Reagan is fortunate in his chronicler, the Post's veteran Reagan-watcher Lou Cannon, who packs an enormous amount of information into a mere 20 pages. Cannon is a scrupulous down-the-middle journalist but cannot resist an aptly formulated quip. So he conscientiously balances out his quotation of Hale Champion's characterization of the president-elect as "The Reader's Digest of politics."

One Cannon observation I thought especially interesting: "Reagan is almost never embarrassed in direct confrontation, where both the physical and mental juices are flowing. But before a friendly audience, he is likely to say almost anything." This, he suggests, is a major source of Reagan's foot-in-mouth problems on such diverse topics as creationism, China and trees.

In a chapter on President Carter's strategy for the primary elections, Martin Schram displays his superb access to White House sources, quoting in detail large chunks of the Hamilton Jordan 1980 campagin plan, part of which focused on getting friendly southern states to change the dates of their primaries so as to help the president. This meant mostly moving them to earlier in the year, as early results have come more and more to dominate the entire process. Haynes Johnson underscores the dominance of early election-year activity, recalling that by early January 1980 the campaign had been going a year and The Post had already sent the same reporter 11 separate times to Iowa. Schram also gives a thorough tour of the inside of presidential pollster Pat Caddell's head throughout the primaries, and a valuable description of Caddell's method for probing the reliability of statements his respondents make in early primaries before opinions are set in concrete. It is also interesting that Schram here reverses his earlier favorable judgment about President Carter's summer 1979 fortnight's sojourn at Camp David after which he asked for the resignations of his entire cabinet.

David Broder's essay is perhaps the most tightly reasoned in the book, a succinct description of the way in which the Democratic Party's reforms of 1968-1972 produced an "assembly of strangers" at their 1980 national convention, a group consisting 70 percent of newcomers, as ideologically distant from ordinary voters and from their own rank and file as Republican delegates are from theirs.

Some of the essays are more shaky in their grasp of their subject matter than others, but enough of them make a contribution to cause a reader a pang of regret that this book is being marketed for the time being only as a paperbound "quickie," with a projected shelf life somehwere between that of whole milk and yogurt. By the time a hardbound trade edition comes along, as is projected, a few of these authors may want to update their observations, especially in light of a more thorough look at The Post's own public opinion surveys. This may give them a handle on the big unresolved post-election question that the current version of this book does not grapple with: to what extend do the election results reflect a genuine turn to the right among the great mass of voters?