5 Ways to Write A Near-Perfect First Draft

5 Ways to Write a Perfect First Draft (or Nearly)

5 Ways to Write A Near-Perfect First Draft“The first draft.” Is there any phrase more likely to evoke such a poignant mix of anticipation and dread?

Anticipation, of course, because we get to write—we get to tell our story!

And dread, of course, because we’re about to subject ourselves to months, even years, of agony and frustration as we blindly slog toward a finish line we aren’t even sure exists yet.

And then, when we reach that finish line, the manuscript we end up with is likely to be in such a disastrous state that we have to start all over again with equally difficult revisions.

That’s just how it is, right? No less than Ernest Hemingway colorfully and famously told us first drafts are never any good. Them’s the breaks, kid, deal with it.

Except—is that really true? Do first drafts have to turn out awful?

Well, maybe not if you’re a genius, right? Maybe not if your story sensibilities and writing skills are so mad all you have to do is touch your fingertips to the keyboard for perfection to come tumbling out like glittery little unicorns tap-dancing all over the keys.

Sadly, of course, that’s not you, and that’s not me. So  it looks like we’re just going to have to keep the ol’ stiff upper lip and continue churning out those rubbishy first drafts.

Except—nope. Today, I’m here to tell you that just about anyone can write a nearly perfect first draft.

Why We Like the Idea of the Rubbishy First Draft

Before you can even think about writing a perfect first draft, you first have to consciously address why so many writers believe it’s an impossible idea (kinda like Shangri-La or the Fountain of Youth).

Very few writers can read statements like Joyce Carol Oates’s Writing Tip #2 without at least a little part of us cheering raucously in commiseration:

First drafts are hell. Final drafts, paradise.

Why are we cheering?

Because we resonate, of course. We’ve all written horrible, miserable first drafts. It’s just nice to know we’re not alone. If Hemingway and Oates and so many other geniuses struggle with their first drafts, well, then, phew!, I guess I’m not doing so bad after all.

Also, bad first drafts are just part of the writing journey. When we start out (and perhaps for many years after), we are writing rubbish. Nothing wrong with that. (I won’t show you my early manuscripts if you promise not to show me yours.) But who says rubbishy first drafts can’t be just a part of the process? Who says you have to stay stuck in Ow-This-First-Draft-Hurts-So-Bad Land for the entirety of your writing career?

Lie That Tells a Truth John DufresneWho says that? All right, all right, so yeah, actually, there are a lot of respected writers who seem to say exactly that. For example, in his book The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne says:

Expecting too much from an early draft is the most common mistake beginning writers make, and it leads to frustration and disappointment…. You must allow yourself to fail. You only write a first draft in order to have something to revise.

To which, I would like to point out two things:

1. He says, “beginning writers”—not all writers until the end of time.

2. He says, “you only write a first draft to have something to revise.” Maybe yes, maybe no. That depends entirely on your process and your priorities—which we’re going to talk about in just a sec.

But then he goes on to say something very interesting:

Nelson Algren said he just kept writing until his story found its own plot. (I’d have to confess I work in the same inefficient way.)

Hmm, inefficient. That doesn’t sound like the end of the road to me. That sounds like a problem that can be solved!

4 Drawbacks of a Rubbishy First Draft

When you purposefully allow yourself to sit down and write a rubbishy first draft—on the notion that it’s going to create a better story in the long run—you may indeed garner some good returns.

For example, you may write faster and more intuitively. You may be more motivated to get words on paper, which, of course, is the whole sum of the game. You may find it easier to initially stymie your infernal internal editor. Some of you may even have more fun writing this way.

Nothing wrong with that. It’s important to know what you’re gaining by whatever methods you’re employing. But it’s also important to know what you’re sacrificing, so you can determine whether the gains and losses are balancing.

Here are four of the most common drawbacks writers encounter when writing purposefully rubbishy first drafts:

1. You Get a… Rubbishy First Draft

Obviously, the biggest drawback—as Hemingway, Oates, and Dufresne would all tell you—is that you don’t end up with a tight, clean manuscript. Rather, you’re much more likely to end up with that promised big fat mess.

2. You Wonder if You’re a Rubbishy Writer

The result of that rubbishy draft is that you’re very likely to look at it despairingly and fight depressing feelings that tell you you’re also a rubbishy writer. After all, the proof is in the pudding, right? Instead of feeling proud of your accomplishment when you start reading it over, you may instead find yourself wanting to just hide under the bed covers for a few days.

3. You’re Faced With Exhausting, Frustrating Revisions

But of course, you don’t hide. You’re a writer, and writers tend to suffer from that infamous Never-Never-Never-Give-Up compulsion. So you get out of bed and start editing the heck out of that slobby thing. And editing. And editing. And editing. And editing. It’s exhausting, and, even worse, it’s often frustrating because you still don’t have a clear idea of what went wrong or how to fix it. You’re just gutting your way through it.

4. Your Story Misses Out on Organic Perfection

Speculative novelist and publisher William Sloane pointed out:

More fiction fails because the author has not had the discipline and ingenuity to provide and sustain a means of perception than for any other single reason.

You will only ever get the chance to write one first draft. That draft is your single greatest opportunity to not just create cohesion and beauty, but to create them organically. Revisions are great—heaven knows we all need them—but they rarely match the energy and brilliance that emerges in that first chronological rush of storytelling.

5 Ways to Write an (All But) Perfect First Draft

I used to wholeheartedly believe in all that stuff about rubbishy first drafts. Mostly, I believed in it because I wrote rubbishy first drafts—and then slogged through the agony of difficult revisions.

But then something pretty cool started happening. About the time I started writing Book 8 of my current 11, my revisions started getting infinitely easier. Almost laughably easier.

Why?

Because my first drafts were so darn clean. There for a while, I started wondering if I had somehow turned into a delusional fathead. But, nope, my critique partners and editors were telling me pretty much the same thing. I still had to do revisions, of course. But they were edits, not rewrites. The final drafts of my last two novels have been extraordinarily close to the first drafts. And, what’s more, they were a blast to write.

This happened because I started rejecting the idea that first drafts couldn’t be excellent and started using the following five steps to help me plan and create the best possible first drafts I had in me. As acclaimed short story writer Brent van Staalduinen says:

There’s a beauty, I think, in writing quality first drafts. I’m loath to call them “rough,” because I write slowly and deliberately and enjoy readable early work. I’ve tried to write with a … first-draft abandon, but the work isn’t as satisfying.

1. Don’t Start With the First Draft

What’s the secret to writing a great first draft? Easy. You don’t start with the first draft. As we talked about last week, storytelling and writing are actually two entirely different skill sets. Too often, when we try to do them both at once in the first draft, they end up getting in each other’s way.

Stephen Covey explains:

…all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and physical (second) creation. The physical follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint.

That’s why outlining is such a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal. It allows you to organize your thoughts, consider the logical train of cause and effect in your plots, and create a road map before you jump into the wild dune buggy of actually putting beautiful words on paper.

2. Ask All the Right (and Hard) Questions

Storytelling is an equation of questions and answers. Something doesn’t make sense within the progression of our characters’ actions and reactions? All right, so we have to question that. We have to acknowledge the plot holes and find the right answers to fill them in.

This is not only vastly easier and less time-consuming in the outlining phase, it’s also more powerful. It allows you to bring your logical brain into play to examine your choices. Are you just copping to the first obvious answer that comes along—and writing away with it? Or are you taking a moment to really consider, not just the plot consequences of your choice, but also whether you’re digging as deep as possible for the single most creative and original possibility?

In the actual writing of the first draft, our brains are cluttered by a hundred different demands—to the point it’s easy to be too distracted to step back objectively and realize we’re not taking full advantage of all the possibilities.

3. Find and Harmonize Plot/Character/Theme

One of the chief reasons slapdash first drafts fail is that they have improperly presented the symbiotic triangle of plot, character, and theme. If the author wasn’t aware of any one of these going into the first draft, then she had to discover them in the first draft.

Plot + Character = Theme Infographic

This rarely happens in a cohesive way in a rushed first draft. The plot might be there from the beginning, but the character arc doesn’t become clear until halfway in, and the theme is then twisted around in an effort for it make sense in time for the climactic encounter.

Although this can (and, indeed, must) be fixed in revisions, you’ll never get the chance to do it as organically as you will during the initial writing of the first draft.

4. Organize Your Brain’s Tasks

The brain’s various facets don’t so much work simultaneously as they work in concert—pushing and pulling, each part in its proper place. The problem here is that the first draft is largely a creative endeavor. Logic requires us to step back out of the zone of rapid-fire word-crafting, so we can thoughtfully examine the big picture.

Because most writers instinctively understand that employing logic in the wrong place can easily throw them off their groove, they usually enter rubbishy first drafts through the door with the sign that says: Abandon Logic, All Ye Who Enter Here.

But, of course, you can no more write a good story without logic than you can without creativity.

This is why it’s valuable to do as much of your logical figurings-out as possible before you throw yourself into the intoxicating embrace of the word-crafting muse. Don’t tax your brain making it do things it doesn’t want to. Instead, work with it to optimize its abilities and output.

5. Trust Your Planning: Write Like the Wind

Okay, great, you say. But all that stuff isn’t actually about writing the first draft. What about that?

That, my friend, is now the easy part. That is where you sit down at the keyboard and you start typing like a gleeful lunatic.  You’ve already created a solid story. You’ve already answered your own most important questions: Does this work? How does this work? What plot pitfalls do I need to be aware of and how can I sidestep them?

The key now is to trust your planning. Don’t start second-guessing yourself. Write with exactly the same abandon you did before in your rubbish phase. No, actually, write with even more abandon. Write quickly, trust the organic process, and don’t get hung up on doubts.

Will you write a perfect first draft? No. You’ll still have typos, clunky sentences, and, yep, probably a few little plot holes that slipped through the cracks. But I guarantee you’ll have written a comparatively perfect first draft that requires far fewer revisions on the back end.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What was the most rubbishy draft you’ve ever written and what was the most perfect first draft you’ve ever written? What do you think made the difference? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Oh, confusing… I have no idea if I have a good or bad draft? Funny right! 🙂
    And you definitely shouldn’t dare to think its good!!!! 😀

    What is a bad-messy draft? When your story isn’t formed yet? My first draft is pretty tight on the story (i’m a storyteller ha,ha) but with a little or no prose. So far I had to change just a minor details to make few things more believable and add the prose.

    Its amazing how a ‘negative’ scene, that is much harder to write, can suddenly change into something really interesting competing even with a ‘good’ scene.
    I had also a wonderful new idea (that almost cages the concept of the book) when thinking of one scene… that it should be domino which it kind of wasn’t. Then I found the domino and it fitted so well into the other things that I wrote before like it had been already there before.

    Honestly, I’m just happy to have a draft :D… and I will be slogging on it forever anyway (with two kids and almost full time job), but its ok as long as Im having fun. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First things first: draft. Second things second: good draft. :p

      If you aren’t worried about what you’re putting out, then, honestly, don’t worry about it! All the advice about first drafts is mostly about overcoming the mind games we play with ourselves. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It *will* be broke down the line, if only because your own knowledge and awareness will grow and your skill will once again have to catch up. But until that point, just keep writing and having fun!

  2. I discovered your site midway through slopping my first draft—which I had not planned so much as haphazardly tossed together a chapter list and called it an outline. After reading about your outlining process, character arcs, structure, and all the other golden nuggets of knowledge, I realized I needed a MAJOR overhaul. I don’t even want to remember my first draft, but it was a valuable experience to go through because now I know there is a MUCH better way.

    Next time I’ll definitely be spending more time planning up front, because I, too, long to be part of the “First Drafts Don’t Completely Suck” Club!

    Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge and insights. They have literally changed my writing for the better and forever.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s the most awesome thing in the world when a writer can look back at previous drafts and realize they’re not as good as they should be. It means we’ve grown that much in the meantime. 🙂

      Great to hear you’re enjoying the site!

  3. Bob Adauto says:

    Interesting that I read this article as I’m tromping through my first chapter. For one, I’m happy knowing I get to rearrange what I’m writing and subsequently I’m not dissuaded from completing my story.
    The contrary is true. I’m eager to finish this, because after that I’ll let it sit for bit and dive back into the first draft to weed out the unnecessary and strengthen what remains.
    Thanks for the boost and encouragement!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No story is ever finished until it’s published… and even then! 🙂 We’re blessed with endless opportunities to perfect our work.

  4. Awesome article, Katie! I found that after scouring your site and books for info on story structure, my outlines and drafts are coming out cleaner and more quickly than before. I still haven’t found just the right process for outlining, just because all of my projects are so different from one another and have different needs.

    But I agree that first drafts don’t have to be lousy. And your comment on how your outline *is* your first draft in a way really hit home. That’s kind of how it is for me, too, though my outlines don’t tend to be as in-depth as yours.

    Thanks for the tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Every book is its own adventure. Even as I’m refining my process from book to book, it’s also unique to each book.

  5. directornoah says:

    Another excellent post! This is very true of my experience in writing, and reflects where I’m currently am at the moment.
    I was 16 when I wrote the first draft of my trunk novel. I pantsed through it, but not because I didn’t want to outline. It was that I never thought I’d actually finish a complete draft of a story, since I’d discarded my previous stories halfway through writing them, due to running out of enthusiasm.
    While doing the first drafts, I tend to ignore its faults as I write, as this gives me less time to be forever editing, and therefore never finish it through, and remain more focused on the main goal of getting to the end.
    I worked for three hard years revising this first draft, and went through the pits of despair, exhausting myself with endless editing and slogging on, without really getting anywhere and seeing it transform into something decent. There were many times I thought about giving up and believing I was a rubbish writer.
    To be honest, I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing back then, I knew nothing about the triangle of plot, character arc and theme, and the plot and characters became so messy, that I recently decided to shelve it and work on my current WIP. I’m also a highly critical perfectionist, which didn’t help.
    Looking back, I can now see what was wrong with it, and how bad it still is, even after years of editing. It requires too much of a major overhaul, but I might return to it again in the future. Still, I know it was a valuable learning experience in my writing journey.
    After discovering the proper ways of writing from your brilliant blog, I have intensely planned and outlined my current novel in detail, and although I haven’t begun the first draft of it yet, I am already very confident it will turn out much better, and from the few scenes I’ve jotted down, I can tell my writing is far more polished than before.
    Your insightful posts are so informative, they’ve advanced and improved my writing for good, and your blog is really helping me become a better writer! Many thanks. ?

  6. Sarah J. says:

    I’m looking forward to growing in this. Currently writing my first novel (i have played with stories for years, but this is the first organized attempt at finishing one as a book). I have found great comfort in the comments of many about a first draft can be as rough as it needs to be. I know that ‘practice makes progress’ so i’m hopeful that future books will come together easier, like you describe here.

  7. My biggest problem has always been in finishing a manuscript. In fact, up to this point, though I have dozens and dozens of snippets, chapters,etc of over 20 stories in various stages on my computer, I have completed only one single manuscript. NaNoWriMo helped me with that, but because I completely pantsed it, I’ve hit a stumbling block with revisions and rewrites.

    Even before that, I had a habit of world building and often would worldbuild to a pretty large extent and I suppose in some ways, it was a bit of an outline in and of itself. I’d be writing the story and then get to a part that maybe I hadn’t thought of yet, or hadn’t fleshed out, so then I’d do that. The problem was, I would then forget where the story was going. So I’d go back and reread to get a sense of where I’d been going. And it would be awful. I’d hate it all. So then the idea just sits on my computer (the amount of those I have at the moment makes me cringe).

    I think the biggest problem I’ve had is in not having a solid writing process/routine that helped me to keep on track. So though I have been writing for decades, I’m a bit late on getting those rubbishy first drafts out of the way. My current WIP is one that I outlined using your method, Katie. And so far, I’m trucking right along in the first draft. I know there is going to need to be a few rewrites (still refining some of my outlining as well XD), but I think, for the most part, the skeleton is there and I think the editing/revision won’t be as painful. That’s the hope anyway.

    So, thank you, Katie. Thank you for your advice. For the first time in years, I feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve always wanted to take writing (which was always more than a hobby for me) and turn it into something that I can get published. You’ve given me many of the tools that I believe will get me to that point!

  8. Krysten says:

    While it is comforting in a way to know that “all first drafts are crap,” I’ve also secretly felt like it’s something of a cop out. It’s an excuse for not making a whole-hearted effort. Because, after all, if it’s impossible to write a good first draft, then it’s not your fault when yours is craptastic. There’s nothing you could have done differently to make it *not* craptastic. But that’s completely false.

    As a perfectionist, I just can’t allow my first draft—or anything I do—to be crap. It’s not in my DNA. And so, when I hear a fellow author advise a novice writer not to worry because “all first drafts are crap,” I cringe. Not only do I feel like an arrogant jerk when I think, “Well, my first drafts aren’t total crap,” but I also think that’s bad advice: Yes, it’s supposed to take the pressure off and help the creativity flow, but it’s also allowing writers to half-ass it. And what they fail to mention is that it’s going to be so much more difficult and time consuming when they get to the editing and revision phase if they don’t put the effort in up front. Can you build a solid relationship on a shaky foundation? Nope. Same is true of novels.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to say is: Thanks for this post. It reassured me that I’m not an arrogant jerk. There are others out there who try to make their first drafts better than crap!

  9. I’m not sure how many more sections in your blog I have to cover, but can see the story gelling, and I feel nearly ready to “gleefully” get on with it. I’m hoping to preserve some of my previous scenes. If not, I’m creating a file called “deleted scenes.” 😉 I’m reverse engineering right now, but still haven’t decided how exactly it’s going to end, especially for one character. I know you have a section on writing the end. Now, where is it?

  10. I comPLETEly agree with this, Katie! In writing novels, especially, one needs to plan and figure these things out if we want to end up with quality work more quickly in the end. That’s why I want/buy your books. I want tools to help speed up AND ease the process BEFORE I waste precious time! 😀 Thank you!

  11. Really like this… I’ve had first drafts on my mind a lot lately.

  12. Maddy Oh says:

    This is a perennial conundrum for me. A decent first draft makes it possible for me to revise–but the initial draft is usually so uninspired, no amount of revision can revive it. A vivid, living, lovely first draft only comes when I let myself completely turn my mind off and make a mess–but then revision is so daunting, I never complete it. I’ve got several manuscripts that are mostly finished, because I was careful with the first draft, but they’re bland and/or missing vital pieces. The other pile is first drafts I love–but that are so messy, I can’t even imagine editing.

    I always start with an outline, a plot diagram, several filled-out character sheets, and a strong skeleton of research–at least. Preparation is key for completing the first draft. But once I actually start writing, any amount of thinking or awareness seems to stop me in my tracks. I stall and can never get started again.

    I feel like my choice is between enjoying writing an inspired first draft, or writing something I can actually revise, but that isn’t very good. Help!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      At some point or other, the process always becomes about discipline. It’s not all fun all the time. The trick is leveraging your strengths against your weaknesses as much as possible in crafting a personal process–and then powering through the tough parts.

Trackbacks

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