Mar 19 2011

It’s Okay If Your First Draft Sucks–Don’t Let Perfectionism Derail Your Productivity

Published by at 11:07 am under Writer's Block,Writing Articles

1. First drafts always suckNobody writes publishable material on the first go.  It takes rewrites to make the story coherent and stylish.

 

2. Your first draft has permission to suck (hat-tip: Linda Gerber).  When your first draft sucks, as every first draft does, you have not failed as an author. You have succeeded in creating a scaffolding for a better story–maybe even a publishable story.  Excellence emerges only during rewrites, and you need to give yourself something to rewrite.

 

3. When writing first drafts, I would recommend focusing on getting it done rather than trying to get it done excellently. I find Tiffany Reisz’s take on this to be very helpful.  “I don’t view my first completed draft as my book any more than I view a bunch of ingredients as a meal. The first draft is just the groceries still sitting on the counter. But at least I’ve got the stuff to make the meal now. Once I have a first draft, THEN I start cooking. Cooking is the hard part. People are impressed I can write a 100K book in six weeks. But I can’t. I can write a draft in 6 weeks, but that draft, those ingredients, takes another three or four months to become the book. I don’t stress about the first draft, just throwing it down, anymore than I stress about buying groceries. I might stress over the cooking, but not buying the ingredients.”

 

4. Doing extensive preparation/outlining may help, but will not prevent the first draft from sucking.  Also, please don’t get so embroiled in your planning that you never feel ready to actually start writing the story.

 

5. I would recommend holding off on most research until you’ve finished the first draft (unless the research is absolutely integral to the story–e.g. historical fiction or nonfiction). You’ll have a better idea of what you need then, so your research will be better targeted and more efficient then. For more details on research and increasing your productivity as a writer, please see this.

40 responses so far

40 Responses to “It’s Okay If Your First Draft Sucks–Don’t Let Perfectionism Derail Your Productivity”

  1. E.J. Apostropheon 19 Mar 2011 at 2:44 pm

    I had to realize this the hard way, too. Thank you for clipping the angel wings of those writers who think they have to be perfect with the first draft.

  2. Nicholas Caseon 19 Mar 2011 at 4:31 pm

    I don’t see what’s so bad about perfectionism, but it does let them know that it doesen’t HAVE to be perfect.

  3. Contra Gloveon 19 Mar 2011 at 4:34 pm

    I struggle with this too — I often look upon my drafts and retch with disgust at the prose. Doing a weekly serial would be a daunting challenge.

  4. Danion 19 Mar 2011 at 5:16 pm

    Darn, I was hoping to have this novel written and out in less than a week. Oh well, maybe two weeks. 😉 I have actually written about five drafts – each one (at least to me) lacking something. Best thing I’ve found is to put the draft away for about a week and do something else. Then come back to it. By then, you will be able to look at it and go “Well, that doesn’t make any sense. Why would a robot show up?” *

    And I completely agree with number 3. Even if you know it sucks, keep writing. Stopping and trying to edit yourself as you go along will only make you forget to keep going with the plot. Wish I had known these earlier instead of having to find out the hard way.

    *This is actually a reoccurring problem in many of my stories I have to deal with.

  5. B. Macon 19 Mar 2011 at 7:30 pm

    “Why would a robot show up?” Because the ninja programmed it to, of course.

  6. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 19 Mar 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Ack, I’ve never even finished a draft. I’ve changed my main idea so much that my older, half finished drafts are worthless to me now. I’m still in the development stage for it, so I haven’t sat down to write, I’ve mostly just been jotting ideas down and stuff.

  7. Contra Gloveon 20 Mar 2011 at 6:48 am

    Any tips on how to do a good weekly serial? I’m attempting it with Alien Frontier, though I’m trying to build up a buffer of chapters so that I can always post something to Fictionpress on time.

  8. cool don 20 Mar 2011 at 7:17 am

    This is good. Also bmac I decided that I’m going to send a proposal for my comic to Image comics, because dc and marvel don’t accept unsolicited work so this might give me and my artist a chance with them.so I might need your help.

  9. cool don 20 Mar 2011 at 7:18 am

    Contra glove that might be hard unless you have the time. If you think you can then good luck

  10. B. Macon 20 Mar 2011 at 10:57 am

    “Any tips on how to do a good weekly serial?”

    1) Post short pieces every week. Personally, I’d shoot for ~5 pages a week. I don’t think I’d be able to sustain a faster pace than that unless I already had a huge amount of pages ready.

    2) Make sure it’s easy for people to navigate from each chapter to the next and from each chapter to the first. (For example, if someone linked to one of my webcomic pages, it’d be pretty easy for you to find your way to the start). If it’s not possible to post clean links, it might even be worthwhile to post the URL of the first post and the next post because I think those are the two most important navigational aids.

    3) Have at least a month worth of writing in reserve. This will give you a cushion in case you need to take a break from writing without delaying readers. (Delays are poison). Perhaps more importantly, writing well in advance will give you an opportunity to fix a plot development if you realize that you’ve written yourself into a corner.

    4) I’m not sure what your aims for the story are, but if you’re aiming to get it professionally published, I would recommend against posting a lot of it on a public website.

  11. Contra Gloveon 20 Mar 2011 at 11:25 am

    It’s not my aim to get professionally published — I’m just doing this to see how a weekly schedule would affect my writing.

  12. B. Macon 20 Mar 2011 at 11:47 am

    Oh, cool.

  13. Jedi Penguinon 20 Mar 2011 at 5:27 pm

    “I don’t see what’s so bad about perfectionism” If you’re a perfectionist, it’s sometimes downright painful to write. I tend to be a perfectionist, and for that reason it can sometimes take me weeks to write 1 short drabble-like story that’s no more than a thousand words at most.

    ““Why would a robot show up?” Because the ninja programmed it to, of course.” I want to steal this for my current story… Would anyone mind?

  14. B. Macon 20 Mar 2011 at 5:33 pm

    “’Why would a robot show up? Because the ninja programmed it to, of course.’ I want to steal this for my current story… Would anyone mind?” If Dani’s okay with it, I’m game.

  15. Nicholas Caseon 20 Mar 2011 at 6:32 pm

    This is the text that will show before the spoiler.
    Hopefully this will work.

    This text will appear afterwards either way.

  16. Danion 20 Mar 2011 at 10:13 pm

    LOL Run with it.

  17. Jedi Penguinon 20 Mar 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Awesome! Gives me another solid element I can add ^^ Thanks~!

  18. Wingson 21 Mar 2011 at 9:03 am

    For me, it’s not so much perfectionism as “I want to make this something I can be proud of later”. True I don’t expect final-draft work the first time around (Though, oddly enough, this happens a lot with essays and the like), but I would prefer something halfway decent.

    – Wings

  19. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 25 Mar 2011 at 4:51 am

    I’m trying to break my habit of correcting as I go by writing something I don’t intend to publish (unless it’s on fictionpress and even then, only for the lulz) and leaving my mistakes in until later. It’s painful… (resists urge to backspace) My descriptions are so bad! I really want to fix them, and forcing myself not to is one of the worst, nagging feelings I’ve ever had. O.e;

  20. Danion 25 Mar 2011 at 1:55 pm

    A great book to pick up (and every library I have ever been to has it for some reason) is the book by the guy from Nanowrimo called ‘No Plot? No Problem!’. He gives a few helpful ways in which you can tell your editor to take a hike. Very funny book and not too stuffy like the Stephen King one which everyone talks about. Don’t get me wrong – King wrote a good book but at parts, it’s like “Who cares?”

  21. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 29 Mar 2011 at 6:57 pm

    May I suggest a program to help with writing?

    yWriter5 is a fantastic program – it allows you to split a work into chapters and scenes, give you an area to put your little scraps of inspiration or vignettes to use later, it gives you a character profile section, with distinction between major and minor, you can list locations and items and make notes about your progress. You can say how much you want to write per day and how many words an hour and after the time is up, it tells you if you’ve met your goal.

    http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter.html

    I highly recommend it.

  22. Mynaon 18 Jul 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Is it necessary to rewrite the first draft entirely from scratch?

    Like, when you go into your second draft, do you have to rewrite the whole manuscript for it to be a second draft, for it to be a good draft? Or can you pick and choose, rearrange things, write new scenes, delete heaps of old ones, redo chapters, line-edit sections etc, but still keeping about half of the original manuscript. Does that also count as a second draft? How many people completely rewrite their novels anywho? (Because completely rewriting a novel is daunting. >.>;; )

  23. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 25 Aug 2011 at 4:22 pm

    “…do you have to rewrite the whole manuscript… for it to be a good draft?” No, I don’t think radical overhauls are necessary. If I could offer an example from reviewing your work, Myna, I’ve suggested reordering a few scenes and proposed a few different transitions between scenes, but I haven’t seen anything through chapter 10 that suggests that huge overhauls will be necessary. There probably will be a lot of lines that can be tightened and/or sharpened and you’ll probably add and/or remove some scenes, but I feel like the core of the story works. For example, the main character is pretty interesting and likable, so it strikes me as highly unlikely that you’d ever feel like you had to switch main characters. (Changing MCs takes a LOT of work, especially in a first person story).

  24. Chihuahua0on 25 Aug 2011 at 4:45 pm

    I really needed to read this. Although my first draft spawned lots of good moments, I’m rewriting it to adjust pacing, justify the plot, and figure out my protagonist’s characterization (tragically, my deuteragonist has his character down). I’ll probably savage some passages, but I doubt that most of it will survive the revision, considering how I’m rearranging, adding, and taking out scenes.

  25. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 26 Aug 2011 at 5:03 pm

    I’m almost the same as Chihuahua, my draft is full of notes highlighted in red to remind me to add things. When I can’t write a scene, I skip to the very next one and leave a note that says “screw this, next scene!” I can always add scenes during editing and clean those up in my second draft.

    General question:

    One of my friends has started writing and can’t believe that I write a story more than once. She has much to learn in the ways of writing, but we had a huge argument not too long ago so I’m a little hesitant to give criticism to the full extent in case it triggers another fight. It doesn’t help that she’s a few years younger than me and not emotionally mature yet. I’ve been walking on eggshells because I was miserable for the first month or so of being ignored.

    What would you say is the best way to explain that doing a second and third draft is a better way to work than throwing it together and leaving it like that? She doesn’t intend to publish professionally.

  26. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 27 Aug 2011 at 12:49 am

    If she’s not looking to get published, I don’t know what you could say. My guess is she’s mainly writing for one of two reasons: to have fun and/or to complete a school assignment. Her writing, as it is, is probably sufficient for her goals. Trying to improve her skills in case she tries to do what you want her to do is probably fruitless.

    If her goal isn’t to get professionally published, I feel like giving her tips on making it professional-grade probably feels unnecessary to her. Similarly, if you had written a fantasy and I gave you tips about how to make it a mystery, you’d probably think something like “WTF? Where’d you get the idea I want to write a mystery?”

    If you think her expectations for her work are much different than your expectations for her work, I’d recommend not reviewing it, especially if reviewing has already caused one fight.



    Relatedly, I don’t review fan-fiction because I usually have trouble appreciating what fan-fiction writers are trying to accomplish. By sticking with stories that are meant for professional (or another serious form of) publication, I have a much better idea that my expectations and the author’s expectations are somewhat similar.

  27. Snowon 27 Aug 2011 at 6:08 am

    I’ve only ever finished one short story, and that was fanfiction. Everything else is still a work in progress.

    I definitely like going back over chapters and smoothing everything out. Just looking back at the stuff I’m working on right now, I know several changes I’d make if I wrote it again.

  28. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 27 Aug 2011 at 7:25 am

    B.Mac: Yeah, she mostly does it for fun, but when she asks my advice I’m stuck between telling her all the things she could modify and fear of a fight. XD She likes me to tell her as much as I can but I feel restricted by what happened in the past. I also feel that if, in future, she decides to write professionally, it might help her to learn early.

    I guess I can leave that for now though – if she asks for more in-depth criticism, I’ll give it, but with a warning label. XD

    Thanks for the advice. 🙂

  29. B. Macon 27 Aug 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Ah… If she specifically asked you for advice, my analogy about offering advice about how to turn a fantasy into a mystery was probably off the mark.

    If you felt comfortable doing so, you could offer a more gentle and less thorough review. For example, instead of listing 20+ mechanical errors, which could be overwhelming, maybe say something general like “I would like to suggest proofreading a bit more aggressively” and maybe point out 1-2 of the most common types of mechanical error. That’s what I would do if I had to review a story for a class.



    However, if you feel like her reaction was seriously out of line (ignoring you for a month over a review?), I’d recommend politely declining to move forward because this will probably not be a mutually satisfactory experience for you two. For example, one way I might phrase this passively (to avoid blaming her) would be something like “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’m the best person to review your work.”

  30. aharrison 13 Aug 2012 at 8:28 am

    OK, this comes from a screenwriting blog, but I’ve found this guy’s suggestions for story development to be useful in the past and I find his script reviews to be entertaining reads. This is his suggestion for an orderly re-writing process.

    http://scriptshadow.blogspot.com/2012/08/screenwriting-article-how-to-rewrite.html

    I think it will be useful in that it gives you something to focus on for your rewrites rather than just trying to go back and look at everything all at once. But, YMMV, I know his first suggestion is to make sure you outline, and I know that not everyone finds that helpful to do. I personally like it because it helps me to get my thoughts laid out ahead of time before I write, so I have some idea where I’m headed. Other people find it too confining.

  31. FVE-Manon 06 Nov 2012 at 6:47 am

    “4. Doing extensive preparation/outlining may help, but will not prevent the first draft from sucking. Also, please don’t get so embroiled in your planning that you never feel ready to actually start writing the story.”

    I’ve decided that from now on, it would be best to write a chapter-by-chapter outline of each novel before I begin writing the actual chapters. Then I could pay a book doctor/professional reviewer to critique the plot. Getting the plot right upfront would make future rewrites easier.

    Is this a wise plan? If so, how many professional critiques would you recommend getting for a plot outline before I begin writing the bulk of the story? This feels like procrastination at times, but I don’t want to find out after writing 80,000 words that the entire structure of the story needs to be changed.

  32. Anonymouson 28 Jan 2013 at 1:40 pm

    OH My God! Thank you so much. I’m in the process of writing a draft of my first superhero novel ever, so I really needed this.

  33. YoungAuthoron 28 Jan 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I can vouch for this. I wrote a horrendous first draft but it gets better with time.

  34. Xos Melon 02 Jun 2013 at 8:43 pm

    I don’t get it. Every time I come back to write I have new and better ideas. It’s like my brain is pumping out ideas and can’t stand the old ones.

  35. Elecon 02 Jun 2013 at 9:00 pm

    Welcome to the world of creativity. 🙂

  36. B. McKenzieon 02 Jun 2013 at 9:27 pm

    “I’ve decided that from now on, it would be best to write a chapter-by-chapter outline of each novel before I begin writing the actual chapters. Then I could pay a book doctor/professional reviewer to critique the plot. Getting the plot right upfront would make future rewrites easier. Is this a wise plan? If so, how many professional critiques would you recommend getting for a plot outline before I begin writing the bulk of the story?”

    1) “Getting the plot upfront would make future rewrites easier.” I think finishing the first draft is much, much more important. It sounds like perfectionism could be an obstacle here — are you having success finishing your first draft?

    2) I’d generally recommend against paying book doctors and would recommend instead befriending professional writers and/or editors (through writing workshops, circles, online workshops like Critters, etc). At most I would recommend paying one book doctor, but even then, I’d suggest doing it AFTER the first draft (or even the second) draft is complete.

  37. FVE-Manon 06 Jun 2013 at 10:36 pm

    Perfectionism hasn’t ever really stopped me from finishing a draft. I just thought I’d save a lot of time by getting the plot perfect before I began writing, but now I’m starting to see just how much my ideas evolve while writing the first draft.

    I guess the real question I should be asking is how to know when a story is ready to submit (or ready to publish/put online, in the case of self-publishing/writing a web serial).

  38. fessus viatoron 17 Dec 2013 at 1:40 pm

    “Also, please don’t get so embroiled in your planning that you never feel ready to actually start writing the story.”

    That is so me.

  39. DancingCaton 28 Feb 2016 at 7:54 pm

    LOL, I can’t even plan without getting so excited I simply CANNOT keep the words inside of my brain.

    Actually, now that I think about it, most if my (shorter) stories came from frantically-scrawled-at-3-a.m. story intros. Haha. I really like the cooking metaphor, seems to get the point across very well. And I happen to think that “embroiled” is an awesome word.

    Do you guys think it’s a good idea to publish first drafts on critique websites so other people can tell me what I should do to less suck?

  40. B. McKenzieon 28 Feb 2016 at 10:41 pm

    “Do you guys think it’s a good idea to publish first drafts on critique websites so other people can tell me what I should do to less suck?” Maybe a chapter or two, and then moving into email communications with interested reviewers (or posting chapters on a website like Critters Writing Workshop, which limits access). I don’t recommend having tens of thousands of words of your manuscript or issues publicly available (i.e. posted online on a Google-searchable website rather than emailed to a handful of reviewers/writers). That might make publishers nervous. In my own case, I posted too much of my work publicly on my own website, and my Amazon ratings took a bit of a hit because some reviewers were annoyed that they paid for a product too much of which was available for free. It may also have lost me some sales.

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