Hi, and welcome to my summer series of ‘Writer’s Truths’! 🙂 Posted each week I aim to explore different aspects of the writing process, drawing on my own experiences as a Literature and Creative Writing graduate, and debunking the damaging myth that REAL writers never struggle in producing their next bestseller. Believe me, behind every finished product there is a legacy of blood, sweat, and tears, and I’m not speaking metaphorically. I already have a few ideas about aspects I want to cover, but if you have any ideas send them my way. Let’s make what we do a collective and share support.
The Dreaded First Draft, opinions on this necessary component are more divided than the average response to Marmite. Ernest Hemmingway once famously claimed: ‘The first draft of anything is shit,’ which is either hugely reassuring or completely discouraging, depending on your outlook. Other writers, while acknowledging the flaws of a first draft, have at least been more conservative, with John Dufresne stating: ‘The purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written,’ (my emphasis), and Shannon Hale waxing poetical with the fittingly beautiful metaphor: ‘I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.’ The point is that the experience of writing a first draft is different for everybody, and that NOBODY is necessarily doing something right or doing it wrong.
The first draft is merely a stepping stone – in fact, you could even call it a pre stepping stone – which in no way reflects the merit or strength of the final work. As many writers have stated, the first draft is something uniquely personal, and maybe even a little indulgent, where you tell yourself the story first, and then worry about telling it to the world later. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and the reality is it’s never going to be. Making peace with that fact is vital to both creativity and sanity. In my time I’ve written some truly abysmal first drafts – honestly, Hemmingway would have to come up with a stronger expletive to characterise their utter depth of failure – I’ve also wrote some that I am proud of, that I keep as mementos, even when they’re now strangers to the final piece. On the whole, I accede more to Dufresne and Hale’s outlook than Hemmingway’s. Every first draft I’ve written, whether abysmal or passible, has taught me something about writing, about myself as a writer, or about how I want my story to be told. In that way, I consider them important, imperfect as they are.
Reasons Why a First Draft can be Considered ‘Bad:’
- First drafts are generally written heart sans head, and no criticism for that. They jauntily arise from impulse, and often before all the necessary information has been gathered (if there was a mortal sin of writing this is definitely mine). First drafts can literally jump the gun, leaving you with an element you love – usually the thing that inspired you in the first place – and little else besides. Characters are useless without a plot, no matter how witty their dialogue XD.
- First drafts don’t exactly deliver a pay-off on all those hours learning esoteric terms and synonyms. (Dictionary.com is literally my best friend; word of the day brings so much joy to my life). And when you finally have decided on the ultimate noun/verb/adjective, your humble piece of paper can resemble a highly efficient assassins hit-list. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the strange spellings I’ve found in my various first drafts either. A sight to behold.
- First drafts are messy, there’s no other way around it. Whether they’re scrawled on the back of receipts or whatever else is to hand; written in snatches between the demands of family, work and life; or detailed in a beautifully-fronted notebook that belies the madness within, first drafts are basically like tossing all your mental furniture into the river to see which bits will float. And it’s all part of the process.
- First drafts can struggle to strike the right tone; whether it’s the setting, the characterisation, the advancement of the plot, something can just feel decidedly off. Which, in itself, is distinctly disheartening. The first draft doesn’t yet know what the rest of the story wants or needs it to be, and the only way for it to know is to keep on writing. If the tone is wrong, change it, keep changing it until you hit on something you like; if the davenport won’t float try something lighter.
- Finally, first drafts can be considered ‘bad’ simply because they’re the first time you’re attempting something. Writing, like any other skill, needs practice and becomes better with it. Trying something you’ve never attempted before can be like learning the skill from scratch, because it demands a different set of requirements. Writing a Romance is a world away from writing a Murder Mystery, and any specialist in one would find it like learning to walk again by attempting the other, regardless of their status (Even the Queen of Mystery herself, Agatha Christie, struggled to write a convincing espionage novel).
Reasons Why a First Draft can be Considered ‘Good:’
- First drafts are passionate, they are chock full of all the excitement for the next up-coming project; they are also the most honest type of writing you will ever do. I don’t mean honest in reflection to your skill, but in their simple purity, unaffected by mainstream selling points. First drafts are for yourself and a reflection of yourself, without realizing it you can pour a lot of heart and emotion into them. If you keep nothing else in the re-writes then aim to keep that, there is nothing better than a work with sincerity.
- First drafts are a learning curve, they are often the first contact you have with your characters, setting, or plot, and they can help you develop all three in ways you would have never otherwise imagined. It sounds bizarre to say it, but my characters regularly surprise me the first time I sit down to write them, how they feel and the way they move unfolds itself to me by experimentation. I mightn’t actually use anything that I wrote about them in the first draft, but it has undeniably helped me define who they are.
- First drafts give you something the work with. As Shannon Hale said: if you don’t pile sand into your box, how can you ever make castles with it? I’ve always found the process of editing a lot less terrifying than that first, original writing, I don’t know if you feel the same? A first draft, regardless of its overall standard, shows you what you’ve done well, where you need to improve, and what you want to change to continue the growth of your work. It’s a starting point, and everybody needs one, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be.
- First drafts (any drafts) will refuse to stick to the plans you’ve meticulously drawn out, and instead veer off on their own trajectory. This is one of the most exciting parts of writing, and the reason why constructing a novel or fictional piece is as much a journey for the writer as the audience. You want to be enraptured by your story, you want to be excited by it, and those first tentative drafts are inspirational gold, sparking numerous possibilities for your disposal. Disorganization can be a disadvantage, but, used in the right way, it can be your biggest asset.
- A first draft can be considered ‘good’ simply by existing. It is you proclaiming to the world something which may have been said before, but has never been said by YOU. Be proud of your voice whether it’s only you alone who hears it, or a whole continent of people wants to read what you wrote.
Well, that ends my little attempt at ‘Writer’s Truths.’ If you take anything away then let it be the advice: don’t fear a first draft. They are necessary and rough. You might hate them or be inspired by them. But even if they are ‘bad,’ remember that everything is relative, and even their disadvantages can be turned around with redrafting. Write on.