Why Writing Your First Draft Is Not As Scary As It Seems

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The first step is always the hardest and when it comes to writing, that step can seem insurmountable. Getting the first draft of your story on paper is the single hardest part of writing a novel and the hurdle at which most people fall. For every person who’s nurturing a manuscript they can’t quite get right, there are hundreds who can’t even bring themselves to start.

But, is it possible that writers are looking at first drafts the wrong way? And, if so, is there another way to approach that first draft, perhaps suggested by authors who went from that terrifying blank page all the way to the bookshop shelf? Could that way be summed up in five facts you should keep in mind when sitting down to write your first draft?

Well, I’m glad you asked.

1. It’s going to be hard

Writing your first draft isn’t tinkering or adjusting, it’s the act of creating something out of nothing. Of taking a story that only exists in your head and nailing it to the paper word by word. Even if you change the whole story in your second draft, you’re at least working with something that already exists. With the first draft that isn’t true: there’s no indication of how, when or where things should happen. Imagination is an infinite resource and hammering it into a specific shape is a daunting task.

When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.
– Kurt Vonnegut

The good news is that it’s only daunting once. Every sentence you write might seem like a slog but you never have to write that thought from nothing again. Even if you end up hating the way you wrote it and go the exact opposite direction, that rewriting will be infinitely easier because now you have a frame of reference.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love began as short stories but their authors, having finally pinned an idea down on paper, built them into novels using the control those early drafts gave them. Every sentence you write makes the story more real, easier to work with, even if they’re badly written.

2. It isn’t going to be good

Shaping unlimited possibility into a recognizable form is going to be difficult; shaping it directly into a pleasing form is impossible.

The first draft of anything is shit.
– Ernest Hemingway

No matter how much you’ve written or how well you do it, your first draft is uncharted territory. The goal is to get from A to B however you can, to get an idea about the dimensions of the space you’re working with. Finding the optimum route on your first foray is a fool’s errand and trying to do it will only leave you lost in the jungle. The good news is…

3. It isn’t meant to be good

Good writing comes from several drafts, from experimentation and brutal editing, and not even Shakespeare could do that in his head. Your first, second, third, fourth and fifth drafts are all part of the same process and there’s no shame in that. Think of your final draft as the answer to a difficult sum and everything that precedes it as the working out that gets you there.

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story
– Terry Pratchett

The first draft isn’t for your readers, it’s the notes you need to start writing something they’ll enjoy. Clumsy sentences might make you cringe but that’s okay because they’re only there to help you write something better.

No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you may be agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed… For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.
– Neil Gaiman

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story - Terry PratchettClick To Tweet

4. It is meant to be fast

Your first draft might be difficult but since it doesn’t have to be good, you can always power through. Many authors underestimate just how rough a rough draft can be. If you’ve reached the point where you really want a character to move from one place to another but don’t know how they travel, put them where you want them to be and come back to it later.

With something as hard as writing a first draft, you need to keep moving. Don’t get bogged down in a difficult chapter when you could be getting the two after it written. Your first draft is a marshaling of your resources, an overview of what you have to work with.

I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months… Any longer and — for me, at least — the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.
– Stephen King

Spending too long on your first draft is tempting and deadly. The difficulty can get you frustrated, so that you end up improving where it’s easiest to do so. Rewriting a first draft is surprisingly easy but rewriting a manuscript that’s a patchwork of first, second and third draft work is a headache you don’t need.

Spending too long on your first draft is tempting and deadly.Click To Tweet

5. You really can do it

Remember, you’re going to change everything you don’t like so, until that time comes, there’s no point obsessing over it. How much are you going to change it? Here’s a page from J.G. Ballard’s first draft of Crash:

first-draft-example

Every great author struggles with their first draft and every great author gets through it. The good news is that since it doesn’t have to be good, all you need to take that first, big step is perseverance. Few things make you feel like a bona fide author as much as having a complete manuscript, even a full-of-holes first draft, sitting on a table in front of you.

Work fast, stop yourself obsessing, and you’ll have earned that feeling.

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11 thoughts on “Why Writing Your First Draft Is Not As Scary As It Seems”

  1. Wonderful article and i think many will find this helpful. I shared the link on Facebook =)

    However, for some paragraphs i was like “mhm. mhm. Ahh good point. OMG IT ALL MAKES SENSE. mhm–wait what?” and then i had to reread the whole paragraph and break it down.

    I think it was because some sentences were misleading.. Like i could say “I love monkeys and bananas and pickles and turtles i hate.”

    I am already assuming you like turtles as well and then i’m like “wait, what–huh? You don’t like any of them or…? lets break it down.. ohhh you like pickles. bananas. and monkeys. but you hate turtles.”

    I don’t think i did a very good job of describing it but i hope you get the idea. i have read about 5 of your articles and each time i had to re-read at least one paragraph… But i am currently sleep deprived so…. i might be making no sense, sorry x)

    But something else is on my mind…. “All great authors struggle with their first draft.”

    I kind of feel bad now… I didn’t have any problems whatsoever, never got writer’s block and just kept having more and more ideas… I’m kind of worried…

  2. I am writing a follow up story which is a follow on from short stories, quite complicated, I’m travelling going to lectures on subjects i need to know and checking internet and have done a family tree, will need some help, as finding it disjointed and complicated and need to get rid of the rubbish of notes ton start the skeleton onf story, I should need help later.

    Susanne West

    1. I know this was an old comment but I thought it’d be worth a shot anyway.
      I was writing a 3 part epic fantasy which took nearly a year for a whole 300 pages (as you can probably tell, I have yet to finish it). I’m letting it fallow while I progress through something new but I’ll be going back to it later in the month. Right now, I’m working on a different project but instead of using Word I’m using Scrivener and holy $#%! it is moving so much quicker! You can collect all of your research, images, & notes (even outlines & such) & have it all in one place. Since I’ve started using it I can promise I will never go back to Word Document. Since you have a ton of notes, I’m guessing it would be easier to use this program (if you don’t already) 🙂

      1. Scrivener is brilliant. I use it as well, although presently on Windows. The Mac version has better support and is at a newer version. I’m going to move to Mac, partly because the Macbook’s keyboards are lovely, but also because Scrivener on a Mac is a fantastic productivity tool for a writer

  3. This was a brilliant read, just what I needed. The example about not knowing how a character moves from one location to another is the exact problem I had when I started my first book. I will come back to that again with renewed energy 🙂

  4. I am working on a novel at the moment. In the last week, I did a Google search for the following; “First drafts suck”. Why? Because every line that I write triggers the same reaction in me; revulsion. I could write something as innocuous as “Bill slammed the door shut in a panic”, then immediately think “I’m so full of s**t.” A perfectly serviceable sentence, and yet I was flogging myself for it. I was lucky if I managed 200 words a night with all the endless edits, re-edits, and re-re-re-edits.

    Then I did my Google search, read a few articles like this one, and when I couldn’t come up with THE word or THE turn of phrase last night while I wrote a fight scene, I settled for something like “Sally walked up to Bill and punched him.” No artifice, no gilding, no frosting on the otherwise plain cupcake; just what needed to happen, and not HOW it needed to be said.

    Thank you for the advice, it was in every way a life saver because I just have to write. I *have* to.

  5. I’m about 80% through a first draft. Although I don’t actually think it’s shit, I know it needs work. But I’m skipping through by means of placeholders. Eg instead of detailed descriptions, I just have (insert description). Or (describe battle). Or (do I need more/less of this?)

    These are issues that can be dealt with later.

  6. Thank you for this great article. I have read some excellent how to books (James Scott Bell, Nancy Kress and Orson Card to name a few) and feel that they gave me the courage to give it a go. I read Stephen King’s twenty bits of great advice as well. I have been disciplining myself to write a story about the story I want to write, so no editing at all… just keep it moving. Having read all the good stuff, I still came to the 47,000 words point (out of a target of 100,000) and I panicked. “This is total crap – parts don’t even connect. What the hell am I doing? Am I nuts?” type of panic attack. And then I came upon your article. Yup – I get it this time. It’s supposed to look like crap. I too, do the ‘placeholder’ scene stuff – especially on days when my brain feels like it is stuffed with cotton batten. I tell myself “yeah that needs to happen here, so just put stuff in here for now and forget it”. I also find it helpful to rework my outline as I go (only started with a very rough one) and I used the 3 act structure as a diagram on which I write in what the obstacles are, etc. Very helpful to visually track your rising action that way. I use pacemaker to make sure I get my 1,500 word minimum a day although I usually write more. This is a story that rolled around in my head, so what if it ends up still looking like hell on the 2nd-4th draft. At least I will be able to feel proud I got that far. Thank you a ton for helping me get through my midway panic attack! I’m thinking “hey this might work after all!”

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