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The Ugly First Draft

Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. You’ve probably heard this before. Trying to get everything ‘just right,’ especially on the first try, can keep you from truly exploring your ideas and coming up with something that might be even better than what you were originally aiming for. Much like children, our imagination works better when it has time to play, instead of being forced to sit and learn the proper way to do things all day long.

I had a hard time with this when I first started writing, and for many years after while I got the hang of being a writer. I was always afraid to move forward until I had everything exactly where I wanted it. The problem is, in writing you may move forward only to discover you’ve toppled the precarious tower of blocks you already built behind you, but that’s okay. You can always return and set the blocks back up, in a completely different pattern if need be…after you’ve built the rest of the structure.

The best piece of writing advice I could ever give anyone is don’t fix your writing as you go. By this, I mean during the first draft. The first draft is a messy, convoluted, disjointed piece of work and it’s supposed to be. You’re dumping your ideas out on the page and then later, in rewriting and editing, you will go back and shape it into something a little prettier. It’s important when you’re writing the first draft to just write it, and don’t stop to correct things.

As I said, when I was a new writer I had a hard time with this. I know other writers do too. There’s a temptation every day when you sit down to write to go over what you wrote the day before and fix it up before you start writing again. But if you keep going back and tinkering, you’re not gaining any forward momentum. When you stop to revise what you’ve already written, you’re not writing the rest. It’s okay to have an unwieldy piece of work on your hands when you get to the end of the first draft, but the important part is you have a piece of work now, and you can fix it up. You might find yourself chopping out whole sections, adding new ones, and rearranging things completely. That’s okay. You need something to rearrange, so get that down first.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, says it best: Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it. 

Get that first draft down, without worrying about how ugly it looks. You can always cut its hair and do its makeup later.

Megan Morgan View All

Urban fantasy and paranormal romance author.

9 thoughts on “The Ugly First Draft Leave a comment

  1. I think this is a problem that all new writers have. We think that the first time must be the right one, so we tend to wait until we’ll be able to write a good first draft, or keep going back and readjust the first draft.

    As for me, understanding that the first draft is shit and it’s supposed to be was a critical jumping ahead of my writing skills. Seriously. I learned that I can fix anything once I’m done and now I never change a word while I write the first draft. I just start where I left off, almost never read even the last line I wrote. If I change my mind while writing, I’ll go on writing as if I had done the change in previous chapters… even if I’ll make that change only in second draft.

    But the most important thing I learned is that the more you revise, the better it is. Seems like obvious, but really it isn’t.
    I never show my writing to anyone until at least the third draft… because really it’s unreadable and anyway, nobody would understand anything. Getting to the core of the story and so to a readable draft is a slow journey for me. Now I know I need those multiple passing to get my story in shape.

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    • Yes! This is exactly what I was talking about. A lot of new writers are nervous that it has to be done right the first time, probably because they don’t have the experience yet of revising and revising again. The most important part is to get the story out, as best you can, and THEN make it into a good piece of writing. I often think writing is much harder than revision, so I want to get the hard part done first.

      You said it all much better than I could with this comment. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to constantly remind myself that the first draft is crap. But sometimes it’s hard to accept that. Fact of the matter is you can’t sit down and expect to write a blockbuster, polished and edited manuscript with no mistakes in one sitting. It takes time, persistence and the unwillingness to give up through the many rewrites it will take.

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    • Very well said! Even if you’ve been writing for years and have multiple books published, you won’t be able to sit down and write it perfect the first time….trust me, I know! 😉 Personally for myself I’m more willing to be imperfect in that first draft than I was when I first started out. I wonder why that is?

      Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Momentum is definitely important. I’ve found that the only way to get into that ‘zone’ when writing is to ignore your inner editor and let your creativity flow freely onto the page.
    I would argue, however, that it is perhaps good and healthy for new authors to struggle through their first draft. Sure they might have to wait a while to see a finished product, but they will have learned so much along the way. Rather than pushing through an opening, they might ask themselves how to write a good opening, look it up, and then test run a few versions. The same goes for learning about what makes good dialogue, how to design a good setting, present a theme, grow a character, etc. It will take time, but they will learn. A newbie writer who just whizzes through a first draft will not have learned anything, carried the plot in a hundred different directions, and worse, developed bad habits that can take years to break. By the time they finish, ‘editing’ will consist of mostly rewriting.
    So in summary, I agree with all of the points you’ve made, but would just add that the struggle to write a first draft might actually be a good thing for a newbie, and that once they’ve learned the craft, they will know when it’s safe to turn off their inner editor and let creativity flow. What do you think?
    My latest blog post covers this same topic from a slightly different angle.

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    • Oh definitely, I agree. The best way to learn something is to do it, of course. And unfortunately in writing, we can take every class and absorb every lesson out there, but when it comes down to it, you have to sit down and execute those lessons–and it’s not always easy. So struggle is definitely a better learning experience than anything else you can do. I just know that trying desperately to get everything right, especially in the middle of that struggle, can trip you up.

      Thanks for the comment! Very insightful.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re right. I’ve also seen some new authors give up writing entirely in the middle of a manuscript because they get discouraged by all of the newbie ‘mistakes’ they’ve made. Patience and a little humility are valuable traits as a writer.

        Liked by 2 people

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