Thursday, June 17, 2010

Let Yourself Write a Bad First Draft

If you're anything like me, this doesn't come naturally. And it became especially difficult once I started learning writing rules because I didn't want to break a single one of them. I wanted to be perfect from the get-go so editing would be a breeze.

A nice idea, but it never works out that way. Regardless of how long I spend on my first drafts, editing - or editing well, anyway - always takes a long time.

The first time I heard about writing lousy first drafts was in my high school English class when we read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. She says, "In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really [bad] first drafts."

And I've found this to be completely true for me as well. Otherwise I sit there and put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to not only write, but to WRITE WELL.

Anne later says, "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something - anything - down on paper."

A few years ago I was writing a first draft, and it wasn't going well. I was totally stuck on something (I don't remember what), and I would just stare at my blinking cursor for what felt like hours. When I complained about this to my husband, he said, "Why don't you try just writing?" To which I gave him a you're-an-engineer-and-can't-possibly-know-what-you're-talking-about look and said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "You know. Just get the ball rolling, and you'll figure it out as you go."

I'd forgotten it was okay to write a horrible first draft, and because of that, I'd been stuck for days. I followed my husband's advice and had a finished draft in a matter of weeks.

It can be easy to think to yourself that no "real" writer writes bad first drafts. That's just not true.

Anne Lamott says, "I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her."

Don't be afraid to let that first draft be bad.


  1. Last year, I participated in NaNoWriMo -- this thing where you set yourself a goal of words to write in the month of November. I set out to write 50,000 words, and you know what? I completed my goal. Went over it, even. But you know what? Since then,I haven't gone back to my story. Why? Because it's a terrible draft. Some things don't make sense, there's about five different plots, I have no idea where it's going. I though it was one of those things that will never go anywhere.

    But you just said, it's supposed to be sad. And I'm going to go back to that story, and keep writing. And when I've finished writing, I'll give my book a proper path. But for now, just knowing I'm going back to my book makes me feel happy! So thanks so much for posting this, Steph.

  2. First, good for you for doing NaNo! I've wanted to, but November is kind of a lousy month for me.

    You raise a good point here, Emii. I've got a few first drafts written that I haven't touched because they suck so badly, I don't even know where to begin fixing them up.

    For me, I realized after I wrote those books that I don't know what it'll take to make them work. Or if they even can. So I've kept them saved on my computer, chalked them up to being learning experiences, and moved on to other projects. That's okay too.

  3. I tend to get about half way through, and then realize I'm stuck, so I start a COMPLETELY NEW first draft, and it's MONTHS till I get back to the first one. Currently, I'm working on four (yes, you read that right, FOUR) different novels. Now to see how they all turn out...

  4. I always get really excited about writing a story, I've make outlines and outlines, played with my characters inside my head, and constantly thinking about that book. The minute I start writing my mind goes blank... Frozen, I think it because I don't have a detailed enough outline, plot, or characters but I have everything I really need though.

    I stop for a bit, on the rough draft, thinking "I'll just give myself a break, and get back to it latter when I'm ready."

    Five minutes latter I got a new idea which I think is greater and better, starting a new outline...

    This better not just be me.

  5. Firstly, I am in LOVE with this site! A writer friend recommended it to me. I could spend hours scrolling around, typing random words into the "Search" just to see what pops up, 'cause everything's so awesome.
    Anyway, my friend just finished her first book, whereas I'm trying to finish my first page. I hate not writing well. I love taking forever on descriptions, but this slows me down so much, I get sick of it and quit.
    I so needed to hear this. Thank you!!!!