Nobody Writes Good First Drafts

Crumpled paperI spend a lot of time working with my clients to edit and revise their proposals and manuscripts. I give notes and suggestions for improvements. Sometimes I take them through draft after draft, until everything seems just right.
 
I know it’s tiring for them, and sometimes frustrating to be pushed to go over it again and again, especially when they know they’ll go through more edits with their publisher. I admire every writer who does whatever is necessary, who keeps pushing through, who remains dedicated to making the work the best it can be.
 
This is what it takes to be good. When an editor pushes you to be your best, or when you push yourself, you’re doing exactly what’s necessary to rise above the hordes of regular writers to become a good writer. Along those lines, I read this powerful piece in the book Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.*
 

No one, not even the greatest writers, creates good first drafts. “I have to write crap before I can write anything that is not crap,” says Walt Harrington, who has been writing well for thirty years. “Writing is thinking. It is an extension of the reporting process.” A first draft might have promising sentences or paragraphs, a brilliant conceptualization, a few surprising turns of phrase, or a sturdy framework. All that, however, will probably be barely visible, entangled in the general messiness of half-formed ideas. Those promising elements will reveal themselves as the writer begins to tease apart the mess with the next draft and the one after that.
 
Still, as you read through a flawed first draft, remember that the hardest work is behind you. You have moved closer to defining the topic and developed strategies for explaining it…. You have stared down the blank page and begun building something on it.
 
Good writing is far too complex to get right in one draft or two or five. Good writers are most often plain ol’ writers who go the extra mile and then a few more.

 
If you are struggling through draft after draft, trying to get it right, take heart. You’re going the extra mile, and then a few more. Keep putting in the work, and you will become a good writer.
 

Are you pushing yourself hard enough? Are you going through enough drafts to push yourself to be a good writer?

 
Tweet this: “Good writers go the extra mile.” Some encouragement from @RachelleGardner.
 
*Quote from Telling True Stories, p. 97, by Mark Kramer & Wendy Call.
 
Image credit: stocksnapper / 123RF Stock Photo
 

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  • Ty Strange

    As tedious as it is I liken the revision process to polishing a rock: the more you polish it the smoother it becomes.

  • Amber Skyze

    While I do dread the editing process I know my editor only wants the best book I can give. I don’t complain out loud. ;)

  • http://www.sheepdressedlikewolves.com/ Andy Mort

    So so very true. Giving space between drafts is also very important and I find that revising in a different place to where I write the first draft is also important. It allows me to see the ‘rock’ as Ty says, in a different light so I have a better view of blemishes. Love that metaphor! :)

  • http://mistiwolanski.com Carradee

    Heinlein and several other professional writers would disagree with your premise. Most would agree that a typo read-through and a copy edit are necessary after the first draft, but there are award-winning authors whose first drafts are essentially their final ones, the majority of the time.

    There is such thing as over-editing. I work as an editor. I’ve seen the results. They aren’t pretty.

  • Dina Santorelli

    Excellent post! And I can attest to this as I’m currently doing my first thorough edit of my second novel. And, boy, that first draft needed some serious help! :) I always tell students: ‘Bad writing is better than no writing.’ And let’s face it: For those first drafts, the writing can be pretty bad. We just need to get it down!

  • Leanne Sowul

    I agree, especially with the comment about letting the drafts rest in between. Each time I’ve done that with my novel, I’ve come back to it and saw major improvements I could make, things I never would have seen immediately after the previous edit. I wrote an almost embarrassing number of drafts of my novel before I began querying agents- I wanted to feel I’d taken it as far as I could on my own.
    Sometimes I wonder if the same applies to blog posts, though. I usually do about 3 drafts of a post, over a day or two, before it goes live. But I’ve noticed other bloggers who seem to write in a stream-of-conciousness way that makes me think they haven’t edited much. It’s more unpolished, but the emotions are usually strong. Losing the impact of the emotion is something to think about as the editing goes on.

    • JosephPote

      I think the time between drafts allows a little emotional distance. It allows me to read my words as a reader rather than as the writer…and I see holes and inconsistencies that were previously unrecognizable.

  • Roxanne Sherwood Gray

    I appreciate this reminder: “Still, as you read through a flawed first draft, remember that the hardest work is behind you.” I needed to hear that.

  • sue

    When I taught creative writing, I could always count on at least one student in every class telling me that they were like novelist Paul Darcy Boles, who had announced in an interview that his first drafts were so good he never rewrote anything. Arrggghhhh! Now I’m not saying that PD Boles needed to rewrite. Maybe he was that gifted, but that interview caused a lot of teachers and professors a lot of grief!

    Anyway, my first drafts are terrible. God bless the writer who invented the rewrite!

    Great post, Rachelle! Thank you!

  • Heather C Button

    My first drafts are getting decidedly better. But I think if I had a reputable agent such as yourself pushing me forward, I think I would be more inclined to push forward, because I have someone who believes in my work. Now, onto my second draft. Which is more like rewrite than edit.

  • Jan Cline

    Rachelle this is a good reminder for something we writers know, but sometimes don’t want to really believe. It took me a while to be okay with the fact that my first draft was lousy. I actually enjoy editing – I learn more about writing from that than anything. I look forward to the day when an agent sees a possible gem under my glaring flaws!

  • Richard Mabry

    Rachelle, Good point. The first draft is always the hardest for me, since I have to come up with the plot twists that (hopefully) keep the reader turning pages. A perfect first draft is beyond my talents, and I’m glad to hear you say that I’m not alone in this. In addition to Anne Lamott’s advice about crappy first drafts, I’ve learned to keep in mind the lesson learned from Tess Gerritsen, who tells herself, “I can fix it when I edit.”

  • Ann C. Averill

    I remember getting a manuscript back from an editor and being told it wasn’t ready for publication, but it was a good first draft. I had already worked and worked and worked on it, and resented his comment as if he didn’t understand all the effort I’d already put in. Looking back, however, I see he was absolutely right. Had I published that draft, I would be forever embarrassed by it, and I wouldn’t have learned what I needed to learn about myself and the piece through the editing process. Nor would I have had that clarity to offer my reader. For me, first drafts have become wild torrents I don’t even try to tame. Later editing is panning for the gold that lies at the bottom of the stream.

  • Neil Ansell

    I think this is true as a general rule, but of course there are few rules which are never broken. I write very slowly, mulling things over until I know exactly what I want to say – in effect I suppose I go through several drafts in my head before putting pen to paper. My most recent book was sent off as a first written draft, and was accepted by a publisher who told me it needed virtually no editing…what’s in the shops is basically just as I first set it down. I’m not saying this approach is for others, but it seems to work for me.

    • Joseph Snoe

      Neil must do something right. Here’s what someone wrote about his book on Amazon.com: “The author’s prose, pared down to easy, conversational essentials; shines like a beacon of pure white light.”

  • Steve Myers

    Thank you Rachelle. I’ve almost been paralyzed at time in writing since the 2012 ACFW Conference for this very reason: a sense of not being good enough in each subsequent draft. I did write two novels in about 10 days each when just focused on my strengths (dialogue and story) but frustrated on the rules and mechanics trying to edit each one and often winding up with more of a mess than where I started.

    I wrote Collen Coble about a year ago and we had some correspondence that meant a lot. I wrote her that “I’d retire at the end of the day before bed and read one of her novel chapters and think “Why is it so easy for her to write such incredible work and mine feels like after hours its just crap?” Collen responded (graciously) “Because the finished book you are reading has been edited up to 4 times myself and another 4 or more edits with my publisher. Yours will be fine after its layered and edited. Just keep writing.”

    Another problem in working with a paid editor in 2013 was the pace of editing and the mechanics as in keeping up with drafts of individual chapters. In the process i learned how NOT to edit. It was a painful exercise worth pursuing. I lerned its better to edit a completed draft than to work a chapter at a time, editing and fixing what my paid editor suggested before moving to create the next chapter. I found I could not wear the hats with five or more bills and switch gears before going on to subsequent chapters. I found it better to edit chapters after the novel first draft was completed and how impossible it is for me to sit and write a complete first draft. That may sound absurd but it was my mindset not corrected at the ACFW Conference amidst all the workshops and courses on writing. I almost wish there had been a course of ‘how to edit,’ and ‘what the editing process actually involves.

    Thankfully to friends/colleagues Laurie Alice Eakes and Naomi Rawlings with phone calls late into 2013 I learned what its like to edit with a Publisher’s Editor. I really look forward to that process. I learned a complete MS draft is sent in one file and returned with a Macro Edit, where a writer can make changes. Then the line edit (where in one file the writer makes changes). And then the Grammar/punctuation edit (which is a publishers editor process.) My greatest challenge or weakest link in my confidence is grammar. I am a writer and not a grammar expert by any stretch. I put so much unnecessary pressure on myself to be everything in the first draft rather than remember Margaret Daley’s counsel to ‘write the first draft of dialogue in your strength and then go back not to cut out but layer in the elements you need to add or strengthen.’ Instead I tried to be a perfect ‘all the rules and mechanics’ in the first draft. And it was a year of futility in doing so.

    In one of my favorite and most repeated viewed films of the past 20 years SHADOWLANDS about C.S. Lewis, is the quote at the end of the film. It applies to my writing: Paraphrased, its ‘Why write if editing hurts so much? The man chooses to write through the pain (of feeling inadequate). The pain now is also a deposit of the joy to come when it might one day become published. That’s the deal.’ And I keep that in mind now reading novels by favorite authors that what is on the page is the result of a half dozen drafts edited by the writer and their publisher’s editor in tandem with them to get it right. Thank you for reminding me ‘nobody writes good first drafts.’ It should be automatic in my mind but now with a printed blog on my desktop I will keep that in mind as I continue to write.

  • Jenni Colson

    Great post, Rachelle, and it came at the perfect time. I finished the third and final edit of my novel this morning. There were days when I wanted to throw in the towel and just call it good enough. However, I’m glad I stuck with it. Looking back, I can see what a difference each subsequent edit made. It was worth the effort!

    And Ty—I love the rock metaphor. So true!

  • Keli Gwyn

    Writing a rough draft, while fun in some ways, can be a painful process. There are days the words flow like a mountain stream during the spring runoff and others when they seem to be stuck in a glacial state. Forging ahead in spite of the challenges and just getting the words on the page is a laudable accomplishment. The manuscript might be a muddy mess, but as the sediment settles and we’re able to take an objective look at the results of our weeks, months or years of toil, we have the opportunity to spot the good stuff as well as the silt. We can cling to the former and let the latter go, knowing we have the opportunity to make our work stronger, clearer and more enjoyable for our eventual readers through our rewrites, revisions and edits.

    Off to work on my latest round of revisions. . .

  • Jackie Layton

    Rachelle, do you have a favorite book teaching the best way to edit stories for authors who don’t have an agent yet?
    Right now my process is to write a first draft. Then I revise and send one chapter at a time to my critique group. Then I revise chapter by chapter. And then I go through the story one more time.
    Thanks for your help!

    • Rachelle Gardner

      I like “Self Editing for Fiction Writers.” It’s simple and straightforward.

      • Jackie Layton

        Thanks. I’m going to look for it now.

  • Zan Marie

    Thanks for the reminder since I’m working on my rough draft.

  • http://www.peterdehaan.com/ Peter DeHaan

    I’m fine with making edits to improve a work, but it’s frustrating to follow one person’s advice, only to have the next person in the process tell you the first person was wrong.

    • JosephPote

      Hah! True.
      Worse than that, I’ve followed an editor’s advice just to have them turn around the next edit and ask me why I worded it that way.
      Frustrating! But part of the process…

      • http://www.peterdehaan.com/ Peter DeHaan

        Yes, that’s happened to me, too!

    • http://www.laure-reminick.com Laure Reminick

      This happens to freelance journalists ALL the time. I know. Been there. Rolled my eyes and said, “Okay, whatever you want.”

  • JosephPote

    I write awesome first drafts!
    Then I spend hours and hours revising and editing to try to craft it into a halfway-presentable publication…

  • Simone

    i love the editing process. it’s the only time my control freak nature is actually useful. i used to think a crappy first draft meant i was a terrible writer, but i’m at the point where i can laugh and learn. and i might still be a terrible writer, but at least i’m working toward something better.

  • Kristi Colaizzi Lloyd

    I’ve been going through my WIP over and over for I don’t know how long! I know it’s far from done and sometimes that’s discouraging. I’ve even had other writers suggest forgetting about this one all together and moving on to the next idea. I refuse to take that step. I will keep working as long as it takes to make this first book a success!

  • Jennifer D. Bushroe

    Thanks, Rachelle, for your encouraging post. I just began draft #9 last week of a novel I’ve been editing for over a year. I’ve been getting frustrated (to say the least), but your words (and the quote) are encouraging. Thank you.

  • Ron Estrada

    Now if I can just get you to stand over my shoulder and say “Hey…that sucks…but keep going.” I’ve heard this from all the great authors (meaning King and whoever’s blog I happen to be reading today). First drafts suck. But if I think of them as the pile of Tinker Toys I just dumped out of the can or a lump of clay I just slapped on a wheel (way back in high school), I can deal with it. You gotta create a mess before you can shape it. And we can all agree to hate that writer who creates a masterpiece on the first draft (she’s lying, of course). Thanks for the post, Rachelle.

  • Bard Constantine

    I’ve learned the hard way that editing is a writer’s best friend. I revise just about everything now, down to my comments on posts like this. I just love the editing process, how it refines one’s work, pushing it from okay to good, then from good to great. I’m currently revising and editing a manuscript that I’ve gone over so many times that I’ve literally lost count. Still finding improvements to make. Writing gives birth to a story, but editing raises it, helps it grow until it finally becomes a novel.

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  • Kathryn Barker

    Thanks for such an ENCOURAGING post!! Just to know a other people write crappy first drafts is helpful!! LOL

  • Amelia Robin King

    Glad to know there are writers who struggle with drafts, not just me.

  • http://www.laure-reminick.com Laure Reminick

    Not sure if my previous post will go through. But must say this comes at a good time. My current WIP is giving me fits. I’m getting to dread that page. But keep on putting whatever I can on it, in hopes I can push and pull the words and phrases into what I want–eventually.

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  • Wendy Macdonald

    Thank you, Rachelle. This is really encouraging to me; I especially liked it when you said writing the first draft is the hardest part. I am finding the first draft of my first novel challenging; however, it is also way more fun than I ever imagined it would be. I’ve written over 50,000 words now, and it’s getting more exciting all the time.

    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

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  • Anna Bielkheden

    Thanks for a great post with valuable and encouraging information!

  • http://ernestooporto.naiwe.com Ernesto V Oporto

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    I am so glad I found this post! I am on
    my Fifth revision of the manuscript, and I can see a marked
    improvement in it. I didn’t realize that the first draft could be so
    ugly. I think is because I was concentrating in plotting and
    characters, trying to make the characters as deep as possible. I
    think I have one more to go, the final one, but I keep on getting the
    impression that I’m not done with making changes.

  • http://www.awakeninggreatness.blogspot.com Sarah Craven

    Thank-you for this! As I embark on my journey, this is just what I needed to hear. I knew this in College, but for some reason, now, I feel the first thing I spit out should be some type of gem. I am thinking this may come from my years spent as a teacher and mother of young kids where I am always trying to get one more thing in before the bell rings or someone wakes up. I am getting frustrated at the process when that has always been the process. You reminded me – it is an art, and it is ok to allow extra time to create. Thank-you.

  • Eric Davidson

    I just finished my first novel. I’m in the editing phase, but believe that my final draft will resemble my first draft very closely. I hear a lot of talk like ‘your first draft will be garbage, you’ll need to fix it’. I don’t think this is true in all cases. Some authors may just get it mostly right the first time? New author, but I am satisfied with my first draft.

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