It’s Okay to Suck: The Art of the First Draft

It’s Okay to Suck: The Art of the First Draft

I’m embarrassed to tell you how long it’s taken me to write some of my first drafts. For a long time, I struggled to put words to paper, bursting with ideas but always blaming writer’s block, or a busy schedule, for the fact that I never wrote them down. Now, as I work through the editing process of my current novel, I find myself remembering the state of mind I was in when I wrote these words for the first time. I remember the chapters that flowed from my mind like magic, and the ones that felt more like forcing the last bits of ketchup from a glass bottle. I find myself laughing aloud at some of my clever moments and descriptions, but also see clearly the areas that were problematic for me.

A lot of these problem areas were enough to make me put down my draft for weeks, or even months at a time. And as a result, every day it became harder and harder for me to pick back up where I left off. To be perfectly honest, I’m lucky to have finished my first draft at all, and I know I’m not the only one.

Why Is it So Freaking Hard to Finish a First Draft?

There are a multitude of reasons people give up on their first drafts, and I’m talking about a mountain of excuses you could see from space if they were all piled together. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • Losing interest in the story or subject
  • Too busy to write, or overall life getting in the way
  • Feeling like you’re not a good enough writer
  • Not being in the right mood or headspace to write
  • Getting bogged down by style or minute details
  • The story is starting to meander in a direction you didn’t intend it to go

When any of this starts to get in the way, it can be all too easy to close your word processor, tell yourself, “I’ll work on it again tomorrow,” and then continue to tell yourself “tomorrow” until suddenly months have gone by, and your words are collecting figurative dust as they become part of the graveyard of abandoned stories on your hard drive.

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

– Terry Pratchett

Putting the ‘Rough’ in Rough Draft

It’s incredibly easy, as a writer, to feel like all your work is, well, shit. Especially during the first draft. But here’s the thing: that’s okay. It’s okay to feel like a crappy writer, and it’s okay to produce crappy work in your rough draft. Because that’s exactly what it is—rough. The point of a first draft is not to get everything right, it’s to get it out of your head and into a workable space so you can mess with it later. And ‘later’ truly is the key word here. That all-too-familiar siren song begging you to self-edit your work as you go will dash your unfinished projects on the rocks and drown your inspiration in a sea with no shore in sight. You may tell yourself you’re just going to quickly glance over yesterday’s work, but chances are, once you start, you’ll never get anything new written for the day. The important thing, especially when it comes to writing a first draft, is to trudge forward, no matter how muddy the path might be.

Got a great new idea that contradicts some of what you’ve already written? Wonderful! Make a note of it in your draft and continue writing as though the new idea has been in place all along.

Stuck on a scene you don’t feel like writing? Sounds like a problem for Future You. Make a quick bullet list of what needs to happen, with as many or few details as you feel like writing, and move on to the next. Sometimes, the very act of doing this will spark enough inspiration for you to write that tricky scene then and there, and sometimes it will just allow you to sit on the information until  you’re ready to write it, while still allowing you to use your energy on scenes that do spark that elusive muse of yours. Not every aspect of your story is going to inspire your creativity at all times, and not all of your inspiration is going to come before you sit down to write, so take it as it comes, and use what you’ve got in that moment. Write scenes that you know you’ll cut later, because some of that dialogue might be useful down the line, and the work you do in these scenes for world building character development, whether it ends up in the finished manuscript or not, will strengthen your overall writing.

Before you know it, you’ll have created something. Something big and messy, probably, but if stand a couple feet back and squint at it, you might just be able to see the shape of your work beneath the muck and grime.

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

– Shannon Hale

Things You Don’t Need to Worry About When Writing Your First Draft

Quality – I mean quality of writing, of plot, of characters, whatever. I don’t care if your first draft feels like a heap of steaming garbage; it’s not there to be a best-selling novel or even readable. It’s there to be the bare skeleton of your work, and as you build the meat and muscle onto your work in the second (and third, and fourth…) draft process, you’ll build on the quality, too.

Theme – If you’re writing something that’s heavy in symbolism or allegory, then you probably already have a theme in mind for your work as you write your first draft, but if you don’t, that’s okay. Writing a story with a good theme is important, but for me, things like overall messages tend to come more easily in the editing and rewriting phase of the game, when you can step back and see your narrative from a higher vantage point. From that bird’s eye view, you’ll be able to see trends in your characters’ actions, get a better grip on the story arc, and understand how to introduce a good theme to your novel.

Style – Chances are, you have your own distinct writing style already, even if you don’t know it. You may not be able to see it clearly when you’re writing your first draft because you’re caught up in the content, which is as it should be. Focus on the story now, and then you can focus on how you’re telling that story later.

DescriptionA lot of people create first drafts that are very boring. They might be heavy in dialogue, and the words might just move the plot along. Later, you can go back and describe the setting, add body language to character interactions, and provide necessary exposition.

Continuity – The first draft is an ever-changing animal, and if you can successfully write a narrative on the first go that doesn’t deviate from your outline in any way, then I bow down to you. Most of us, however, are mere mortals, and our first drafts are riddled with plot holes and inconsistent details that change as we continue to write. I know this advice is getting repetitive, but this is another problem for Future You, because it’s much easier to smooth these wrinkles when you’re editing and looking at the story as a complete piece, rather than from up close like you do with the first draft.

Characterization – This is not to say you shouldn’t have an idea of who your characters are. You should. But use your first draft as an excuse to experiment with them a little bit. It’s okay if they’re not totally consistent—see my above notes on continuity.

What all of this comes down to is that higher vantage point. When you’re writing the first draft, you’re in the thick of the story; every word that’s being written is coming directly from your brain, and you need to get it down as fast as you possibly can. When you work on your next draft, the story will be already laid out for you, however messy it may be. After all, it’s much easier to put together a puzzle when all the pieces are right in front of you, laid out right-side up, isn’t it? You still have a lot of work to do, moving those pieces around and making sure they all fit together, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to do this than to create that image, and all those pieces, from scratch.

“You can always fix crap. You can’t fix a blank page.”

– Christina Dodd

Things You Should Be Worrying About When Writing Your First Draft

Getting it written.

Honestly, this is kind of it. This is The Thing you should be worrying about. Get those words in your head committed to paper, or screen, or the back of a napkin. I don’t care. Just get them out of your head. You are your own worst enemy when it comes to your productivity as a writer, so kindly tell yourself to shut the hell up if your brain tries to make you do anything other than write. Write, write, write. Even if it’s crap. Remember, that’s what the editing process is for!

Your goal should be to finish your first draft as quickly as humanly possible. Even if there are plot holes or a complete lack of continuity. Even if it looks like it was written by someone who doesn’t actually understand how to put together a sentence. Even if an outsider reading your first draft (as a general rule, please don’t let an outsider read your first draft!) would be unable to understand the entire plot. The idea here is momentum; you should be typing with a fury, getting ideas committed to words as they come to you, no matter how messy they are.

Once you let go of the idea that your first draft needs to be perfect and readable, you’ll open yourself to a channel of inspiration you’ve never tapped into before, because it’s always been so carefully filtered that nothing has gotten through. Not all of the ideas that come from that inspiration will make it to the final product, but you might just surprise yourself with how many of them make the cut.

“Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.”

– Jane Smiley

Forcing Yourself to Write

I can hear you whining already, “This is so much easier said than done.” And yes. Yes, it is.

Writing is a muscle, and in order to whip it into shape, you need to exercise it. Regularly. You don’t go to the gym for the first time in your life and run fifteen miles on a treadmill, or bench press 200lbs on your first attempt. (Well, not without hurting yourself, anyway.) No, you start small, and you build up. You exercise. You sit down at your desk and you open that damn word processor, and you start writing. I don’t care if it’s about your story, or if it’s a journal entry, or if it’s just a couple hundred words of you complaining to yourself about how you don’t feel like writing.

Just. Write.

And then—here’s the kicker—keep doing it. You’re going to injure yourself if you skip the gym for two weeks and then go and work out hard, assuming your body will keep up with your expectations. Similarly, you’re going to burn yourself out or disappoint yourself if you expect to come up with something marvelous and literary when you haven’t been working hard at it. Take baby steps. Write every day. Make a bullet journal, mark an X or a dot on your calendar for every day you write, or use a habit tracking app, or find an accountability partner.

Just. Write.

The more you do it, the easier it will become. Once you are able to build writing into a regular, scheduled habit, you will find that your narrative, characters, and world don’t have a chance to wander too far from your brain, so you’ll be able to reuse leftover inspiration from your last writing session to build on the inspiration you’ll spark in your next one.

That first sentence is always going to be the hardest one to write. I sometimes procrastinate opening my word processor for ages, telling myself, “I’ll just check my email first,” or, “I’m going to make a cup of tea, and then I’ll write.” These procrastination techniques build on each other until they’re a sky-high wall that you’ll never climb. Instead, give yourself little, manageable goals or conditions. Instead of checking that email, tell yourself, “I’m going to write for five minutes first.” Instead of making that tea, tell yourself, “I’ll just write one sentence, and then I can go put the kettle on.” You’ll be surprised how often five minutes turns to twenty, and one sentence turns to a paragraph, then an entire chapter. Sometimes I’ll go hours before realizing I never made that cup of tea, but looking over the work I’ve completed in that time warms me just as much.

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

– Stephen King

Look, when it comes down to it, the only thing standing between you and your first draft is you. So seriously, get the f*** out of your own way, and write.