Bad First Drafts-Not Just for Beginners

In her classic craft of fiction book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott devoted an entire chapter to bad first drafts. She used a more colorful term, but her overriding message was almost all first drafts are bad. This reminded me of a quote I came across on Karen Miller’s blog from Terry Pratchett that was so on target I wrote it down: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Whether new or experienced, most writers find the first draft a daunting task. Writers are still discovering their story and yet they expect too much from the first draft. When the story isn’t flowing the way it should, writers get discouraged. Experienced writers work through this, but novice writers should mind Anne Lamott’s advice. The truth is first drafts don’t have to be great, or even good. First drafts just have to be finished. Even if the writer believes his first draft is the worst piece of fiction ever written, there’s a story somewhere amid those 80,000 words. There are characters waiting to be filled out and completed. The writer’s job is to find the story and the characters, polish them and refine them.

The first draft is easier when the writer approaches it with an uninhibited mindset. As Lamott put it, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Like many writers, I constantly fight the urge to edit my first draft. I’m one of those writers who has to read what he wrote in the previous session before continuing with the first draft. This does two things: it gets me into the flow of the story and I also discover some glaring error that I correct. However, we must recognize that too much editing and obsessing over scenes already written can derail the writer.

Here’s another quote from Lamott that I should tape to my laptop: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

When you finish your first draft, put it aside for at least four weeks. When you return to it, some of the questions to ask are:

  • What is the essence of the story? Is the premise fully developed? Is the theme evident?
  • What is the main character’s strongest trait? Biggest weakness? Is it evident to the reader? Does the main character grow or change?
  • What is the central conflict in the story and has the writer maximized it to its full potential?
  • Is there enough tension throughout to sustain interest in the story?
  • What is the best scene? What is the worst scene? Can it be cut?
  • Who is the weakest character? Can this character be cut without harming the story?

Here are some other perspectives on first drafts:

Karen Miller

Harriet Smart

Learn to Write Fiction

Writer Unboxed-Anne Greenwood Brown

Write to Done

Writer’s Digest

What’s your view on first drafts? Do you labor over them or rush to get them done?




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7 responses to “Bad First Drafts-Not Just for Beginners

  1. I’m not sure I even get a full first draft out anymore– like yourself, I go back over what I last wrote (or sometimes a different section), lightly edit myself into a state of writing bliss, and eventually find myself with a draft that is a patchwork– some of it, edited ten times, some barely touched.

    Not a novice writer, but a novice novelist, (written= four, edited to perfection= zero), I’d say I haven’t worked out a singular way of getting that draft, yet. But did find, with the first novel, that finishing at all makes a permanent difference.

    • Mary,
      Thanks for your comment. I think a lot of writers struggle with how much time they should spend making the first draft really sing, at the expense of getting bogged down and never reaching the finish line. It takes a lot of discipline and focus to complete a first draft and even more to go back and revise, even after you are tired of looking at it again and again. Now I need to finish my WIP. Thanks again.

  2. Ruin, abandon and finish- my three concepts for daring to wrestle the fear of writing 150000 word first draft. It does not need to be good, only done. Then the real torture begins- cut, pick, slash, read out loud, bother everyone around you about the sound of one word… Then the third revision, it is amazing I have hair

  3. Ruin, abandon and finish- my three concepts for daring to wrestle the fear of writing 150000 word first draft. It does not need to be good, only done. Then the real torture begins- cut, pick, slash, read aloud, bother everyone around you about the sound of every word… Next, the third revision, start rounding everything together blending as a winemaker might. It is amazing I have hair left, as my favorite habit for revisions is pulling–

    • Caroline,
      Thanks for your comment. Ah, the third revision. That’s when things get really tough for me. The story is taking shape, but it still needs work. Now I have to get back to my WIP, almost done with the first draft. Thanks again.

  4. Now that I use Scrivener, I write in episodes anyway. And I don’t feel guilty about it. Episodes are easier to write–job and finish.
    And an uninhibited mindset? You betcha, so long as uninhibited means not shaving for three days and wearing a sweat shirt smelling of old dog.
    Well, if you’re in the groove…

    • RA,
      Thanks for your comments. I struggle with first drafts because I am always tempted to edit as I go along and a little voice in my head keeps telling me to move along. I appreciate you sharing your perspective.

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