Thursday, August 29, 2013

How Bad Can A Bad First Draft Be?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

If you've been a reader of the Go Teen Writers blog for awhile, then you've possibly already seen this article. I wrote it back in the spring when Jill and I did our Go Teen Writers blog tour, but I've never posted it here. Since I mentioned bad first drafts in yesterday's post about that first slip of momentum, and since many of you said in the comments that don't edit as you write, that you just try to press on with the first draft I thought it might be helpful to post about what exactly should be involved in writing a bad first draft.

You've likely heard writers talk about writing "bad first drafts." This is something I first learned about in Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, the idea that you can make more progress in writing by not worrying about every teensy-tiny detail and editing each scene until it's perfect, but instead by writing a bare bones first draft and then going back to revise.

Not all writers do this, but for those of us who write bad firsts, I think it begs the question of, "How bad can a useful first draft be?"

The bones of the story should be there on the page.

When you finish your first draft, the elements of the story should be there. Maybe a couple characters are flat, that plot twist isn't quite there yet, and the ending is rushed, but you should have something you can work with and shape. Like a lump of Play-Doh that you're trying to mold - the Play Doh has to be there before you can make it into anything. Maybe your character's black moment still needs to be darker but you should have what you need to shape it into a black moment.

If the story bones aren't there yet, then your first priority should be to write them. Because you don't want to spend a bunch of time tweaking descriptions of your main character's school if you haven't yet figured out how your story is going to end.

It should be a length you can work with.

Some writers are putter-inners and some are taker-outers. By which I mean some naturally write long and have to cut back their words and others write bare bones and have to go in and flesh out their stories. If you're writing in hopes of getting published, you'll need to pay attention to what word count you want to hit, and then figure out where your first draft needs to be.

I'm a putter-inner. So I know that if I want my book to be 90,000 words, I need a first draft around 77 to 80,000 words long. My friend Roseanna White is a taker-outer so for a first draft of 100,000 words, she knows she needs to reign herself in around 110,000 or so.

You should still like the story.

When I finish a first draft, I usually feel pretty drained. I've been pushing myself hard to finish, and I'm ready for a break. I try to take six weeks off after my first draft. When I come back to it, I need to still like it. I see lots of things that need fixing, but I should also see promise and feel excited about edits. If I don't, I'm in trouble.

This has only happened to me once where I finished a first draft, reread it six weeks later, and had a good long cry because the book was just so bad. I put the book away and I've never pulled it back out. During that six weeks off, I had the idea for Me, Just Different, and I saw a lot more promise in it than I did this other story. I decided not to torture myself with edits for this other book, to move on to Skylar and Connor, and I've never regretted it.

So what can be bad?

So what elements of a first draft are okay to be really, truly bad? Here's a list of what typically needs the most work in my edits:
  • My prose. I'm a dialogue girl, so my dialogue is normally decent but my prose needs a lot of smoothing. You might be the opposite.
  • The voice of my "other" characters. They usually all sound the same, like afterthoughts.
  • Drab action beats. My characters do a lot of smiling, sighing, and chuckling in first drafts. I have to clean all that up.
  • Lame twists or surprises. Sometimes I come up with something great in the first draft, but more often than not, I have to work for a more unique twist or surprise connection in the second draft.
  • A rushed pace. Again, I'm a putter-inner, so I typically have a manuscript that sounds very rushed. I have to slow things down and describe more in my second drafts.
The edits can feel overwhelming, especially if you're not a plotter, but many writers grow to love edits even more than they love writing the first draft.

What's your style? Do you write bad first drafts or do you edit as you go?


  1. Bad first draft, for sure! I have a first draft waiting till the six weeks (or something like that) are over, and I know already it needs much, much more dialogue. I always have way too much internal monologue and the other character are know, waving at the sideline or something. But I know every time I write, with every story, this is going better, so maybe there is hope ;-)

  2. Oh wow! This is great! I feel like I'm writing the worst BAD first draft ever. I'm totally a very-bad-no-editing-first-drafter. I feel it gives me room to fail and I can fix up later. ;) It works well for me.
    But this draft I'm writing now? It's bad. It's the worse thing I've ever written. And I want to finish it because it's a style/genre/story I've never tried before. I'm worried though, that it's too bad to be worth doing. But, can you "waste" time writing? Isn't everything you write good for you in the long run? (Or can you teach yourselves bad habits by writing too badly?)

  3. I usually edit as I go along. Like if I make an unexpected plot twist that I like, I go back and try to fit the plot twist.

    With the book I wrote for OYAN, in the second draft I had my MC discover his supposedly dead father, and I had the villain trying to pry something out of the MC for the entire book that the MC didn't think he had.

    The problem was, these two background subplots had no support or any way for the reader to say, "Why didn't I see that coming?"

    So with those two background subplots, I went back and made the MC's life really weird in the first chapter. A good weird, so that the reader would be wondering what was going on with the MC's life.

    But yes, overall, I'm horrible on first drafts. I usually have a lot of adding to do.

  4. The first story I completed, I revised as I went along. The good thing was, it ended up being a pretty decent first draft. The bad thing was, it took a looong time. And because it was already kind of "polished," I had a hard time making it messy again by going back into the story to change things. After reading so much on GTW about how it's okay to write bad first drafts, I went that route for the one I just completed. Sure, it needs a lot of revision, but I felt more free to play around with plot twists and characters. Not only was it more enjoyable, but it was a lot quicker, too.

  5. Reading about how you write is so encouraging because I do the SAME exact things : )

  6. I've done a editing as I go, and I've done writing bad first drafts. I think I prefer to write bad first drafts, though. It's easier for me to focus on the whole, bigger story, then I can go back later and smooth out the details. :)

  7. Eh, I do a stop and go method where I write 10k, and then back and got back and fix the big stuff, then I go and write another 10k then repeat the process. It's more motivating to me somehow. :P I've tried writing bad first drafts, but i think editing as i go works better for me. :)
    And I had that problem with not liking a WIP, i went back to read it after five weeks and couldn't even get past chapter two, so I trashed it.

  8. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. I needed this so much. And I'm with Alyson--the way you write sounds pretty similar to me. I was just rereading Skylar's stories and I was noticing how like your writing, my writing now has a lot fewer said tags and a lot more action beats. I think that's thanks to you. :)

  9. My first drafts are always terrible. Sure, I'll have great characters that I love and a basic story that I can work with, but the description? Nonexistent. The action beats? Boring and repetitive. (I can't tell you how many times I've come across the phrase, "She rolled her eyes." in my books). My editing takes forever, though I have it down to a science:

    1st Draft: WRITE WRITE WRITE.

    2nd Draft: Fix major plot holes, cut scenes and characters that aren't needed, and anything else that will hugely alter the story.

    3rd Draft: Do the nitty-gritty stuff: description, action beats, dialogue, strengthen the personality of my characters, etc.

    4th Draft: Spelling and grammar issues.

    5th Draft: Send my book to my critique partners.

    And if all else fails, repeat the process. ;)

    (Ugh, I've been rambling again. Feel free to ignore this entire comment).

    1. I like how you put the "feel free to ignore" at the bottom.:-)
      Sometimes, instead of saying, "She/he rolled his eyes" I say "resisted the urge". It's not much, but.... It is a suggestion.
      I'm editing now, actually, and I am having A LOT of fun with it. I was surprised because I had been dreading it.:)

    2. Ooh, that's a great idea! :D Thanks!

    3. My characters all smirk, and I swear. They all must have had whiplash a thousand times over from all the head nodding/shaking.

    4. My characters raise their eyebrows A LOT. Seriously. They raise one eyebrow, they raise two eyebrows, they quirk their eyebrows all the time. I think all my character's eyebrows must be especially well muscled.
      ~Sarah Faulkner

    5. Ha! :D That's nice to hear. And here I was thinking that I was the only one!

      (We can be eyebrow buddies). ;)

  10. I write 'bad first drafts', but now I pay more attention to the plot and the characters. Regardless of what a writer does, the first draft will be bad. Now, whether the first draft is bad or horrid to the point that you don't even want to look at it, that's all up to straight planning.

  11. Know what you all mean. I outline first to see if the idea, characters, and twists work. When I outline I make a smoother first draft, but it's still terrible.

    Some authors say that the first draft is trash, but it's not, it's the building blocks of the story. It's usually terrible, but it's not trash, it just needs work.

    Rainbows and Unicorns,


  12. Well, this gives me lots of hope! :) I am very close to the end of my story, and while I love it, I have a lot to fix.

  13. To the question at the end, I do both :P I get extremely excited during my first draft and will write the first couple chapters and when I do that, there's not a day that goes by that I don't read over every single chapter before I begin the Next. Every time that happens I end up editing again and again. when I havent even gotten half way through. When I start the second draft I still love my story but then I just start editing and adding stuff in. My descriptions are really what amp up my wordcount because by then I've already editing everything else :P

  14. I've found that no matter how long I try to "edit as I go" or how much I try to perfect it during that first draft, I end up with a killer amount of editing to do. I've pretty much gone to doing horrid first drafts and then editing them to death several times over. It's much more efficient, and I find that I actually enjoy the comparatively low stress of editing to the very involved process of the first draft.
    Did I really just say that? Next thing I know, I'll be a morning person!!

  15. I'm a procrastinator. So I can't let myself edit until I've finished drafting. So what I do is I write a bad first draft to get a compilation of ideas. Then I do a first draft plot edit. Then I edit for characters, then typos, then a final going over. Then it's ready for other people to edit. XD

    It takes a while. But in the end you have a solid story. And that's what counts, right?

    Anyway, I flesh out during my plot and character edits, but I take out in typo and going over. So I do both? At any rate. I usually keep it under ten thousand of my goal. Then add in twenty, then take out ten.

  16. I'm like you in that if I edit as I go I get bogged down and don't want to finish the story. My first drafts generally have plot holes, but I've found they've gotten better with each one I finish. I know they'll start to plateau here pretty soon, but it's cool to see them getting better.
    Thanks for a great post, Stephanie!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

  17. I think I'm both a putter-inner and a taker-outer. I take a lot out because it sucks, but then I write a whole lot more for a longer word count. I edit some things, like grammar, because I just can't stand (most of the time) to have sentences that don't flow right. I guess I can say that I micro edit as I write. It doesn't really make sense, because a lot of the stuff I edit as I write will end up being taken out later when I macro edit, but it makes me happy so that's fine. :) All the stuff you mentioned in your what can be bad list applies to me as well, so I think I write similarly to you. I've found, though, that I need to plan all of the story out before I write, though, because otherwise it gets boring and I can't keep writing it. :) I'm trying your planning method for my NaNoWriMo novel, with the notes on the board. I'm really looking forward to seeing how it goes. Thanks for the idea!

  18. If I edit before I have written the entire first draft, I definitely get really discouraged and probably won't finish it!

  19. Well, i dont edit along the way. im going to edit once im done. but im a adder, like u stephanie! ive already just read the first 2 chapters of my book, and a lot got added. :p right now i have 29,429 words! and im about 3/4 of hte way through, so a lot will probably be added. :) cant wait for that day!!!! :D


  20. I wrote a horrible first draft--I'm a little sick of the story right now (heck, I did work on it for 972 days), and I just hope I still like it enough to get to the second draft after these six weeks. During my time off (I finished it on the 27th and can get back to work on October 8) I'm planning to read up on Go Teen Writers articles and other articles pinned on my writing board ( for those of you who want to add articles to YOUR writing boards) and "compost" for a fairy tale retelling.

    Wow. So I just put a lot of unnecessary information in there. . . .

  21. My first drafts are bad! I focus on getting the main plot points down and adding all of my "brilliant" ideas first. My characters are rather drab at first because I'm still trying to get to know them. My first drafts are also full of inconsistencies, because if I change something (a name, a place, or other details) in one part, I don't go through the whole thing and change it all. I just make a note of it in my planning sheet and take care of it during editing. The only kind of editing I do during my first draft is spell check.

  22. Bad first draft! I mainly focus on the bare bones that I know of, sometimes skipping entire scenes that I'll write in later.

  23. My first drafts are awful... I'm working on not editing when I write, because I end up getting so frustrated over one word that I don't even want to write anymore. I think writing is first, and then come back and edit after - it will get better with every glance.

  24. I like to just get it all out in the first draft then build from there. :) I'm working on a system since I haven't started a brand new story in a while lol.

    Stori Tori's Blog

  25. thank u thank you! that is just what i needed... i need to focus more on just writing my first draft than editing as i go along. That's what I tend to do, slowing me down. and plus, I always edit later anyway!

  26. My first draft on a certain WIP is horrid(A, for simplicity). I'm trying to work on another story (B), but my mother told me to keep going on A.
    So I read the first few paragraphs of A, fell off the couch, rolled around on the floor, buried my face in a pillow, and moaned.

  27. This was so helpful!! All of you guys' blog posts are! Thank you so much for sharing!