The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of the Shitty First Draft

Right now, I’m revising a shitty first draft of a short novel. It’s a pain because I pretty much have to rewrite the whole thing, but what's great is I don’t have to think too much about the plot. I’m switching the POV from third person past tense to first person present tense. I’m focusing more on the language this time around, because I know my story and my characters. I am experiencing the best and worst parts of writing a shitty first draft.

I appreciate and envy the writers who don’t have to write multiple drafts. They write a solid draft and are about 80% done with the book. But there are few authors who can do this that are actually good writers. The writers who can knock that first draft out of the park have usually been writing for a long time and have published tons of stories. For the rest of us, drafting is a necessary evil.

The surest way to get a draft down is to write a shitty first draft. It’s a draft for you, only you. Showing a reader, agent, or editor a shitty first draft pretty much ranks up there with a proctology exam. Most writers cringe at the idea. They are not wrong, but there is so much good that can come out of writing that shitty draft. There is also a lot of bad and downright ugliness that comes from writing one. So let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the shitty first draft.

Aspiring writers wanting to get a novella or novel under their belts would do well to embrace the shitty first draft.

The Good

You have an actual manuscript completed! Finishing a book means you actually have a shot at making it better and publishing your work. Congrats, you got something done. Even though the language probably sucks, you have a pretty good story. You created real characters and an engaging narrative. What you also have is a book that needs two to three more drafts. The book might read like a detailed outline or a bare bones Hemingway impression, but you are feeling pumped to start the next draft. There are no major story problems, just little plot point tweaks that need to happen as you redraft. Your main focus on the next pass is the language and characterization. Your story and its themes are pretty, pretty good. 

The Bad

You finished your draft to learn that the story didn’t really start until the third act. At least you finally know who your protagonist is, what their flaws are, and how they need to change by the final scene. Yeah, you have a draft that can’t really be revised, but at least you know your story. Basically, this draft was the equivalent of writing an outline, and now you are ready to write the story for real. Could you have written a better rough draft if you started with an outline? Probably, but hopefully you wrote your shitty rough draft fast. Yeah, this round went badly, but it's not so bad— you at least know where to go with it.

The Ugly

Shit…sorry, but you just wasted a bunch a time on a story that is complete shit. There is nothing in the draft worth pursuing. You just wrote 20,000 to 80,000 words of pointless masturbatory nonsense. You are already sick of the idea and the characters. You learned there is nothing for your reader to care about. Through this shitty first draft, you learned that you need to have some idea of what you are writing and whom you are writing about before you start. When writing the shitty first draft, there is always the risk of writing something awful and not salvageable. This is rare, but sometimes writers need to be humbled to respect the craft of storytelling. Writing a shitty aimless first draft will bring that much-needed humility.

To Write A Shitty First Draft Or Not?

Good, bad, or ugly; writing a shitty first draft is an effective way to finish a book. Aspiring writers wanting to get a novella or novel under their belts would do well to embrace the shitty first draft. Even if it ends up being very ugly, a young writer will learn from the experience and grow through the process. If a writer is a proud panster, the shitty first draft can be more effective than an outline. If they are a plotter, they can pretty up the language in the subsequent drafts. The shitty first draft is a gamble, but it a smart one for writers at any stage in their career. Good, bad, or ugly you now a have chance of writing a great book.

Image of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Author: Anne Lamott
Price: $10.79
Publisher: Anchor (1995)
Binding: Paperback, 272 pages
Christoph Paul

Column by Christoph Paul

Christoph Paul is an award-winning humor author. He writes non-fiction, YA, Bizarro, horror, and poetry including: The Passion of the Christoph, Great White House Volume 1 and Volume 2, Slasher Camp for Nerd Dorks, and Horror Film Poems. He is an editor for CLASH Media and CLASH Books and edited the anthologies Walk Hand in Hand Into Extinction: Stories Inspired by True Detective and This Book Ain’t Nuttin to Fuck With: A Wu-Tang Tribute Anthology. Under the pen name Mandy De Sandra, he writes Bizarro Erotica that has been covered in VICE, Huffington Post, Jezebel, and AV Club. He is represented by Veronica Park at the Corvisiero Literary Agency.

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smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. August 15, 2017 - 8:20pm

I am acquainted with "The Ugly".  I think I am just going to go ahead on that shitty first draft. This was pretty damn funny by the way. I enjoyed it. It was right on target. Nice work. Thanks. 

tommyhulk's picture
tommyhulk August 16, 2017 - 11:42pm

Many thanks for sharing this very diverse opinion post where each expert has no doubt shared his best knowledge on the topic. Have more success in your journey.
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Christoph Paul's picture
Christoph Paul from New Hampshire is reading Haunt by Laura Lee Bahr August 17, 2017 - 5:00am

Thank you. It was fun to write. 

Joe P's picture
Joe P from Brainerd, MN is reading The Eye of the World August 18, 2017 - 2:21pm

I got my Shitty First Draft done! I think it might even fall somewhere between Good and Bad... which is good!

Now I'm getting started on the rarely spoke-of 2nd Draft and I'm feeling a little inexperinced and unsure how to proceed. I committed myself to completing 5 drafts, each focusing on something different:

1st - Get it written.

2nd - Big fixes. Plot holes. Content. Themes.

3rd - Prose, Style & Characters

4th - Continuity and flow

5th - Copy editing and proofreading.

Do any of you guys have tips, tricks, or suggestions on how to write subsequent drafts? 1st drafts are fun, but 2nd drafts on forward seem much more like work. Thoughts?

Christoph Paul's picture
Christoph Paul from New Hampshire is reading Haunt by Laura Lee Bahr August 18, 2017 - 5:58pm

Hey Joe,

That is a great plan. I noticed when I do up to 5 drafts following that formula of fixing different things in each draft, the book is good to go after the fifth draft. I had one book that had a great story and character but I only had time to do three drafts; the book is ok but it could have been really good to great if I did 5 drafts. Good stuff! 

Joe P's picture
Joe P from Brainerd, MN is reading The Eye of the World August 18, 2017 - 10:35pm

Cool! What about Beta Readers? Where do they fit in? And what feedback should I ask of them?

Christoph Paul's picture
Christoph Paul from New Hampshire is reading Haunt by Laura Lee Bahr August 19, 2017 - 6:29am

Beta readers or an editor or usually best after the 3rd draft. They will tell you if the story and voice are working or need fixing. 

Joe P's picture
Joe P from Brainerd, MN is reading The Eye of the World August 20, 2017 - 7:28am

After 3rd draft. Sweet. Thanks again!

Hải Đăng's picture
Hải Đăng November 9, 2017 - 8:48am

Thanks for your sharing! The information your share is very useful to me and many people are looking for them just like me! Run 3

Emilly's picture
Emilly April 28, 2018 - 6:39pm

That's a good style, friend! Try yourself as a creative writer.You can definitely earn something!