Columns > Published on September 26th, 2012

Getting Over It, Getting It Out: On Embracing A Bad First Draft

Back in April, Max Barry wrote an excellent article for LitReactor on some of the common frustrations surrounding the first draft.

I want to add my two cents to this topic because the first draft is something I’m routinely asked about — and I think this process gets a lot of attention for a lot of wrong reasons. To be specific: it’s my opinion that writers' anxiety surrounding the first draft is wholly axiomatic as to why it’s often so frustrating to begin with. Look, the first draft isn’t exactly the most important step in the writing process (more on that later), but it is, of course, the first step; it’s where a story leaves your head and takes residence in the world. So, it’s natural for this to be a process wrought with indecision, second-guessing and stress. The problem is that many writers combat these inevitable bouts by adding a lot of unneeded legwork to the first draft, thereby making this process a lot more difficult than it should be.

Personally, I don’t know anyone who claims to get it right the first time — and someone who says otherwise is probably either lying or too willfully blind to recognize shit when they read it.

I can sum up my personal advice on writing first drafts very simply: just get it out. Turn off your inner critic, put away your editing proclivities and fight your way through it. Write as quickly as you can. And this is the only time you’ll ever hear me say this, but try not to think too much about what you’re putting on the page. This is your one chance to be as stupid as you want. Revel in it.

Why? I'm so glad you asked.

Like a lot of beginning writers, I used to engage in a creative process where my work was being unwittingly sabotaged by a sort of smothering overachievement. I wanted to make sure every paragraph — every sentence — was perfect before moving on to the next. By the time I finished my story (months later, if I finished at all), the result was invariably the same: a draft that focused too much on the micro elements (sentence acoustics, dialogue, tone) while the overarching strategies (character development, structure, plot) went woefully neglected. These drafts were essentially well-written junk. They were elaborate, long-winded ways of saying nothing.

Then I began joining writing workshops. I’m a procrastinator by nature — just ask the LitReactor editors — but when faced with a deadline and the challenge of writing an entire story in a few days I found I was now forced to write for the story instead of the sentence. Sure, my first drafts under this new system were poorly written, but they had substance. They were embarrassingly messy, but they revealed a cohesive internal logic. Unlike my previous attempts at writing fiction, there was something tenable in there somewhere, something that could be improved upon with time.

The first draft is going to suck. But there will be inspiration, there will be ideas, and there will be a framework upon which you can further refine those ideas — and that framework is the writer’s playground. When you write the first draft you’re tilling the ground for ideas that will take root and grow in time. Sure, it's tough to accept the fact that you've just produced something shitty, and it's an even worse prospect to find yourself committing more creative time to polishing a turd. The temptation to scrap it and start something else can be fierce, and for me, forcing myself to produce a quick, messy draft required a complete change of environment, and later, nothing short of a psychological rewiring. But these drafting follies taught me something important: one of the biggest obstacles a beginning writer can overcome is having the trust to know your work will get better with time. It’s the difference between a person who satisfies a fly-by-night compulsion to write a story and someone who engages in a comprehensive process that becomes more realized with subsequent drafting. "Vision" is the operative word in revision.

This is a quandary that affects everyone, so it’s just something you have to get over. Don’t believe me? There are early drafts of The Great Gatsby out there and, trust me, the writing is horrible. Of course, the final product is something else entirely. Flaubert was also notorious for turning a mess into a masterpiece; he claimed it took years to get the words right. But this is the guy who wrote Madame Bovary, so when it comes to the final product the proof is on the page. Writers have to get over the idea that writing is a wholly creative process, and that editing is a cerebral shift into cold concretes. Editing is a creative endeavor. It’s a reapplication of ideas that affects everything from the macro elements of a story to its semantics. Personally, I don’t know anyone who claims to get it right the first time — and someone who says otherwise is probably either lying or too willfully blind to recognize shit when they read it. The creative mind is a messy place; you’re simply not going to translate abstractions from the place you dream into a palpable written message without a few translation errors at the beginning. You need to have confidence, so much confidence that you can be comfortable with the fact that you’ve just written shit, because you know it will get better. The good news is this: the only person who has to see the first draft is you.

The concept is to get the creative ideas on the page and then revise until it hurts — and then revise some more. Ideally, you’ll want to tackle this process by taking on the “big” items first, so you can work on the foundation of your story before the smaller, more inconsequential elements are addressed. But again, editing is a creative endeavor, so where that process takes the story is ultimately up to you. Subsequent drafts may reveal your story turning into something different entirely. The fact is, you won't know until those creative seeds are on the page.

I’ve also discovered that writing isn’t merely a process of transcribing ideas; it’s a forum where some of the best ideas are born. That is, it took me years to realize a huge part of the story comes not from internal boardroom sessions I’d have with myself to source ideas, but from the practice of putting ideas on the page and then adding or taking away components to see what’s working and what isn’t. You can sit around and mull over characters and plots for years, but ideas change the second they leave your head and hit paper. In order to embark on a truly creative process, your story needs to undergo a sort of creative puzzling: you have to add things in, and take things out, and see what works. The fact is, writing is a crapshoot. You’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some. But you’re not going to know what the final product will be until you wrestle your way through it. So you have to spend time — daily, if you know what’s good for you — churning those ideas out, instead of sitting with them and hoping they somehow evolve on their own. Get sloppy, get messy, and write with abandon whatever comes to mind. Just have the patience and trust to later return to those ideas and give them the guidance and structure they need.

About the author

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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