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Blog // Artistry
May 5, 2018

More Thoughts On Writing First Drafts

Authors and writing coaches consistently say first drafts don’t need to be perfect. Yet writers get stuck, trying to create a masterpiece on the first pass. Why?

We were sat on low stools at the old farm-style table. The espresso machine hissed behind us. Quiet conversations and alt-folk music filled the air. My friend, a sometime blogger, sometime entrepreneur, was asking, “How often, when you write, do you stop and delete what you’ve written and start again?”

I paused, not for effect — I already knew the answer — but to answer a question that came to mind. When was the last time I hit delete while writing a first draft? I couldn’t remember. I replied, “I think, almost never.” Then after another pause, I went on, “That’s what drafts and rewrites are for.”

Of course, by the time we get around to rewriting, most, if not all, first draft ends up being dumped, reworked, or supplanted by better stuff. Eventually, some or all of it gets deleted or dispensed with. But that wasn’t the question. The question was: what role does the delete button have in the first draft phase of writing? The answer: It doesn’t have any role at all.

First drafts are all about pushing words out at the speed of thought—not slowing down to hold and examine them as they emerge. It’s very hard to write and, at the same time, edit or evaluate your writing. Trying to do those literary gymnastics at the speed required to produce any decent volume of work over time, like writing a book, or producing a steady stream of long-form articles or blogposts, is pretty much impossible.

To gain any fluidity as a writer, you have to learn to think with your fingers. You find the words as you write them. It’s like jazz.

The editing, the enhancements, they come later. That’s why you have a process, draft and re-draft, edit and, whenever possible, work with good editors.

Let’s say you are describing coffee with a friend. You start by writing “We sat at the brown table.” It’s a weak opening. Surely there’s a better way to describe the cafe, a more intriguing description for your friend. Yes, there is, but this isn’t the time to worry about it.

Learn To Trust Your First Drafts

For the purposes of a first draft, a friend sitting at a brown table is good enough. If the details flow as you write the first draft, catch them. If they don’t, you’ll have a chance to add them later. If the description feels weak, don’t worry. Trust yourself. Trust your work ethic. Trust the process.

Right now, you might not even have a sense of how much detail is required.

That’s the thing. In the first draft, you don’t know. Your job is just to put the words down, to lay down word after word, building a bridge to what your piece of writing will become. Give yourself enough so the story and the ideas have something to cling to, some hope of germinating and coming to life, then move on.

The most fatal combination for a writer is laziness and ego. If I get it right the first time, I won’t need a rewrite. I’m good enough to get it right in the first draft. Both are lies, self-delusions fed by ego or laziness, or both.

In a recent piece on first drafts, we looked at the way Rene Girard can help us understand how ego emerges in the first drafts of our work and what we can do about it. Trying to get everything right in the first draft is just another version of the ego, of our emotional need, taking precedence over the story itself, as Girard warns us.

Ignore The Delete Button And Focus On Writing

Quite possibly the worst way to write is to agonise towards our word count goal, overworking everything as it emerges. It’s tiring, it’s exhausting, it’s such an emotional tumult that we’d scarcely want to show up for that kind of work again and again every day.

The advice I gave my friend in that quietly intense cafe conversation was to never delete anything in a first draft. “Just don’t hit delete, ever. If you mistype a word, type it again as best you can or leave the typo in there.” Fixing it in a second draft or editing pass is quicker that trying to go back, hitting the delete button—or worse, pausing your thoughts while trying to think of the correct spelling.

And, by committing yourself to more drafts, to editing the work, and, most important of all, to accepting that your first draft is never perfect, you are also committing to being a better, less egotistical writer.

Dane Cobain 6 years ago

I suppose it depends how you write! I don’t necessarily write in a linear way and so I do quite often go back and delete something that I’ve written and re-write it from scratch. But as a general rule, when I’m writing a book, I have the first draft in which I just get the words down, then I go back through and add some detail in places, and THEN I start on the second draft. Then it goes through three rounds of editing and rewrites 🙂

That said, I do think that if you don’t do a decent job on the first draft then it’s often better just to scrap the whole thing and start again. It’s like editing a photo. All the Photoshop in the world won’t help if the source image sucks.

Agostina 6 years ago

This is the exact way Im used to write, not looking back at first. Before my ego prevented me from correcting much, but now that has changed with the years. A lot of times I think I was too scared to read what I wrote in case it wasn’t as good as I thought in the first place. We all want to be that exception, I guess, that Mozart of our generation, or maybe just our neighborhood or family…

fernando 6 years ago

Agostina – I’ve gone through phases of not wanting to look back on my work. The ironic thing is, more often than not, when I look back not just at the writing, but also the other creative output, it’s better than I remember it. Sure, the mistakes stand out, the misspelled word, or something like that, but the ideas and metaphors – so often I’m too harsh on myself in the moment.

fernando 6 years ago

Dane – yes, I’m all for throwing out bad stuff, after the attempt has been made. I’d rather try to take the photo, then decide later if it’s good, than talk myself out of taking it.

Robin 6 years ago

Ever since I started ignoring the delete button when writing my first draft, my writing has greatly improved. It gives me the opportunity to write whatever ideas I have without worry. I am also able to follow the editing process which I dreaded in the past fearing that my writing was not good enough.

Keep on sharing tips to make us better writers. It makes a huge difference.

Any tips on writing faster? Thanks:)

Agostina 6 years ago

I agree, most times I end up even being proud of it when I thought it would be cringe-worthy. Of course, yes, the mistakes stand up as you say, but the ideas, which is the most important part, are usually not the problem. I think writers are too hard on themselves in general, right?

fernando 6 years ago

Robin – thank you, I’m glad it helped.

Not sure I can help on writing faster. Practising touch typing can help, though my technique on the keyboard is not great.

I find what helps me is to block out enough time to write and being happy with a modest but regular amount of words. Over time, I’d much rather push out a few hundred words a day, 6-7 days a week, than a few thousand words in one epic session, then not write for 4-5 days.

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