Creative writing goes through several stages. Whether it’s called a “rough” draft or “first” draft, producing the first fully written out version of the work terrifies some writers into immobility. Some, after completing the draft, are so high on accomplishment they rush out to share it with others in order to multiply praise for themselves and what they’ve produced. Both are serious and dangerous conditions for a creative writer to be in, and they are caused by a fundamental flaw in expectations for this first/rough draft.
Experienced authors, sit back and see if these ring true for you. This is primarily for new writers. This includes those paralyzed by the prospect of massive word-counts, terrified of not knowing enough before beginning or expecting to produce perfection in one go. This also applies to those who have just generated a couple hundred pages of what they’re sure is their magnum opus, perfect in conception and production, which they plan to publish in, say, a couple of weeks.
What to Expect from a First Draft:
1. No project is perfect the first time.
There are no exceptions. Even the finest author who has written dozens, even hundreds of stories, books, or poems, will admit “perfect” in the world of art and creativity does not exist. “Perfect” is thoroughly subjective and cannot be checked off in the to-do list of writing.
The pressure of ensuring every small detail is in line before actually producing lines on a page is debilitating and irrational. Just to break it up, write something horrendous first just to get that out of the way. No one will read what you don’t give them, so the only judge in the first draft is you. Stop judging in pour it on the page. Everything can be improved, but it has to exist before it can be polished. It’s worth repeating this excellent piece of advice: Shut off your inner editor. Editors don’t drive in first draft stages.
There will always be those who believe they are an exception, and that their work has been so well-planned, so inspired, so long in coming that all it has to do is make it to the page. Either they’re innocently ignorant and just starting out on their first project, or they have an inflated image of their own talent. A first draft has nothing to do with talent. A first draft is about work. Editing, revising, polishing, and knowing when to test the waters is talent.
2. Your worth/skill/identity as a writer never depends on a first draft.
Develop a solid core of self-esteem separate from your work. This may take ages; it may come naturally. There is so much more to writing than just drafting out a project. So, before that first disastrous read-through of your draft makes you weep and want to quit, don’t you give it that power! A first draft is always intended to be as good as we can make it, but it is still a draft. Don’t set all your worth as a writer on that first effort. It’s like an artist giving up a whole painting after a first pencil sketch.
The opposite is true too. A great first draft, even if it comes out exactly as you envisioned in your mind, does not and never will make you better than anyone else. For every project that reaches the completion of a first draft, there are revisions, critiques, readers, and editors that will all contribute to a final product for distribution. Every author has their strengths and weaknesses, so be glad for your strengths but don’t tear someone down for their weaknesses.
There are dozens of wonderful analogies for the writing process (because writers write them!), however these two put first draft expectations in their place:
A novel is like a house. Don’t paint the walls or hang the curtains until the structure is sound. That first draft should be setting foundations and putting up the house frame, not perfecting the feng shui of the parlor.
Other writers have opted for the messier, but just as accurate, sandbox analogy. A first draft is getting enough sand poured out in messy heaps to eventually craft a castle. The crafting is left for later, after the right amount and quality of material is produced.
4. The project will almost always change.
The image of writing a novel, at least as I remember it before I really acted on my dream to write seriously, consisted of a ton of planning, an eternity writing, a week or two editing, and then fame and fortune. That “eternity writing” was all that first draft. It didn’t even enter my mind that I would write several versions of the same story, investing twice my drafting time into revision.
Major changes that occur after a first draft are not only normal, they’re healthy for the book. Stubbornly resisting any and all advice (or not asking for any help at all) undermines the purpose of writing to be read. Good alpha readers (preferably an editor or compassionate fellow writers) will always have a new perspective, and will often see clearly any holes in the narrative, plot, style, or character cast that can be fixed at the early stages of editing. They, and the writer, need to have the right expectations for a first draft. (A great discussion on this is found at Setting Expectations and Getting Useful First Draft Feedback)
Plowing ahead and immediately sharing the single, precious, first and only draft of your first book with the public will not show the world your best work. As much as the dream of immediate gratification thrives, accept that all work needs revision to attain the best possible level of excellence. Getting a second, third, even 10th opinion can only help the work, and doesn’t reflect any lack of confidence in your project. Let the first draft be just that; a draft. It is not a manuscript ready for publication; not yet, and that’s okay.
No matter what you call it, “first” drafts are meant to have at least a second draft, and a “rough” draft demands a “final” to follow it. Nothing can be “first” without more to come.
Yes, diligently writing until there’s a stack of pages and precious words to hold in two hands is a massive achievement! Few people get that far, so celebrate! Pop a cork, take a breather, gloat to yourself and wear a goofy grin. Then buckle down and get back to work on the second draft.
No matter how happy you may be with that first draft, plan on revisiting it again… and again with fresh eyes, new readers, new helpers, and new goals. That is the nature of a first draft. This is no ending, but just a new starting point.
First Draft Resources, Helps, and Links: