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