Writing a First Draft Part 3

Tip 3: Accept that your first draft will need a crazy amount of rewriting. 

If you accept up front that your first draft is going to stink, it frees you up to write, as Natalie Goldberg calls it in Writing Down the Bones, “the worst junk in the world.” If you’ve read Bird by Bird you know that Anne Lamott calls them “shitty first drafts.” I love Anne Lamott for many reasons, but I really love her for making the phrase “shitty first drafts” part of my vernacular. If you recognize before you even start writing that your first draft is going to stink, then you won’t waste needless time staring at a blank computer screen wondering what to write or worried that it won’t be good enough. It won’t be good enough. You’ll need to do a crazy amount of rewriting. The sooner you embrace the concept of “shitty first drafts” the sooner you’ll get that dreaded first draft over with.

Over time, I’ve also come to accept the fact that I’ll end up trashing most of what I write in my first draft. Today I’m on page 156 of my current first draft. Sounds good, right? Wrong. Most of what I have will be deleted eventually, sent to that cyberspace void of misused words and half-baked ideas. Why? Because a lot of what I have written is redundant, with the same idea repeated, and repeated, and… It takes a few flying leaps for me to say exactly what I mean. I’m still feeling out the common thread, the theme, that will tie the story together. I still have to research the historical aspect because in this new work I’m back to historical fiction. I always get great ideas from the research, and those ideas will add depth and color to the flat black and white canvas I’m currently painting on. The chapters aren’t in order because quite frankly I haven’t decided on the order. I haven’t settled on a point of view. I could go on, but I won’t.

Did I mention I have a tendency to repeat myself?

The only writer I’ve ever known who said her first drafts came out perfectly was a creative writing instructor I had in grad school. She said, to a cynical and disbelieving class, that everything came out exactly right the first time she wrote it down. She said she went over her sentences in her head until she had them just right and then, and only then, would she commit her words to paper. Mozart did the same, she said. Some smart-ass in the back of the class (I swear it wasn’t me) pointed out that in fact she did write several drafts, only she did it in her head instead of on paper like the rest of us. She simply smiled at him. What that smile meant, I still don’t know. All I can say is that around 90 percent of us will need to write our first drafts out, as in words on paper, and rewrite many times before we can say we have a perfect, polished final draft.

6 thoughts on “Writing a First Draft Part 3

  1. I can’t imagine why that instructor thought that was helpful information to share with the class. Unless she was just trying to prove her own superiority . . . which is so NOT what instruction should be about.

    • I agree, Ruth, about the instructor wanting to make herself seem superior to the rest of the class. That’s what I thought at the time, and years later that’s still what I think. I even remember the smirk on her face as she said it!

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