No, your first draft isn’t shit

Bernie Anés PazWritingLeave a Comment

Something I’ve seen going around in communities such as /r/writing and /r/fantasywriters is a belief that your first draft is supposed to be utterly terrible and irredeemable. Ernest Hemingway literally said the same thing, actually, and it’s a sentiment echoed by a lot of writers, famous or otherwise.

It’s an interesting way of looking at things because these same people generally consider revision a natural step towards good writing. Even people who don’t like revision hopefully give their work at least a quick read over, or do the iterative mental work as they write rather than with consecutive drafts.

In the academic corner of language arts, specifically in teaching others to write, revision is just seen as part of well, writing. Honestly, this makes a lot of sense to me and always has. I very often struggle to understand why others felt they had to “force” themselves through a draft and then do “the real work.”

A first draft is probably the most important stage of your work, whether or not it’s also the worst form of it. It’s the very bones of your writing. The ideas are down, the direction is set, the actual effort needed to produce something spent. It’s a huge step. A ton of people never actually finish a novel. On top of that, at the end of it all, you have a complete story and a broader picture of that story.

When I talk to people about the writing process, I often like to compare it to drawing. I told this to a friend of mine who’s an artist, and after speaking about it a bit she admitted that a writer’s first draft seemed exactly like sketching for an artist.

The usefulness of sketching does vary from artist to artist, just as drafting varies for writers. Sometimes the sketch is just a mess of lines good only for composition, to see where everything goes, the angle of the piece, the spacing. Other artists basically draw the final piece of art then and there and just have to clean it up a little before moving on.

Either way, many of them still work in “layers.” This is mostly a digital art thing, but technically traditional art is often made in layers too; it’s just not as useful a concept since you can’t go back.

What this means is that digital artists can create see-through layers in their program of choice that they can draw individually on, but the layers are all perfectly aligned and look like one image.

Why would you want to do this? For iterative control. This also varies from artist to artist, but it’s like keeping each draft you write and using the previous one a guide. Some artists use their messy sketch to do much cleaner linework while others use it to begin adding details. Many use a separate layer for shading and coloring too.

This allows an artist to swap between each “layer” easily, meaning they can go back to the layer of just linework and deal only with that. It’s like being able to swap between the layers of a body, going from the details like hair or tone, down to muscle, down deeper to blood vessels and organs, and all the way down to the bone at will. Just because you drew the skin on doesn’t prevent you from going down and tweaking the bones a bit.

For us writers, this “layer” process is basically what a first draft is. It allows us to “sketch” everything; the characters, the narrative, the beats, the pacing. This is why a lot of people suggest against revision until you’re done (or at least have a solid outline), as you have a much stronger big picture perspective when you’re “finished.”

Either way, the first draft is essentially the bones and the first stage of something coming alive. It’s a very important step. Once there, we can go ahead and do all the cleaning up, tweaking, and additions or removals that we need without losing sight of that big picture. Maybe you’re such an amazing writer and hardcore outliner that you don’t need to do much work, but either way, you’ll be able to sit back, squint, and agree (or disagree) with that assessment.

So yes, your first draft might not be the best form of your work, but it’s not even its final form. It’s also definitely the most important draft because without it there literally can’t be any other, better drafts.

It’s not shit. This is a painfully negative perspective for new writers. Writing is already hard enough and the publishing industry, self or trad, can be cruel and heartless. No one wants to be told they first need to write garbage and get it over with; they should instead be taught that a first draft is but a stage, one of many, and that it can be improved despite their current self-loathing.

Sure, maybe the following drafts won’t be publishable or all that great either, but those get better with time and practice too. It still boggles my mind that so many people fail to see writing as a learnable skill. You have to work at it, and every time you write something you’ll get a little bit better. That’s half the reason why drafting works; you’re generally a better writer at the end of a project than you were at the start of it.

So keep writing; learn to see the first draft as a landmark towards the goal and not a panel of judges standing before the guillotine, waiting to see if your work is even salvageable because of course it’s shit.

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