First Drafts Suck

Sometimes one of the hardest things to do is to keep writing through your first draft. Ideas can feel flat and uninspired. Characters might not meet the expectations you set out for them. Obstacles wind up being easier to overcome than you imagined, or, the opposite, you find yourself written into a corner. It is frustrating and infuriating and quitting starts looking better and better because, let’s face it, your first draft sucks.

But the good news is that all first drafts suck. No matter how much planning you do in advance, there’s a big difference between an idea and a story. A story requires details and specifics and everything has to work together. Sentences have to be crafted, motivations have to be honed, choices have to be made, and consequences have to be realized. Moving from an idea to a final product takes a lot of work, and the first draft is the first step. And the first draft is always a messy step.

First drafts don’t just suck because they are the messy beginnings of a novel. They suck because they’re difficult to write and they’re difficult to stick with. But the reason you must keep writing through a terrible first draft is simple: blank pages can’t be revised. In order to make the book better, something needs to be on the page. Revising is like sculpting, and the first draft is how you make the clay.

Sculptures can’t be made without material to sculpt, and the same works for stories. The first draft has to be written so the writer has something to revise and craft into the finished work. It may be tempting to stop in the middle and start revising, but not finishing your first draft is a disservice to your story and sometimes a waste of your time. Even the most organized planners can discover things about their characters, plot, and world through writing the first draft. Ideas develop organically—it becomes clear that the character should turn left instead of right, a sub-plot more fully develops, one idea spawns another and a new area of the world is fleshed out. You might discover that a scene you wrote well and loved doesn’t belong in your novel any more—and if you spent your time honing it instead of writing to the end of your first draft, you would have wasted that time.

So push through your first draft. Even when it sucks, try your best to love the experience and motivate yourself to continue. Reward yourself for writing. Tell your friends what you’ve completed. Write the scenes that excite you. Write out of order. Leave gaping holes that just have notes like “battle scene” or “much smooching” or “Kate and Joe need to talk.” Leave notes to yourself about ideas you get as you’re drafting or revisions you want to make, but keep writing forward. You’ll have a mess by the end. You’ll have a draft that sucks, but you’ll have a draft that you can craft, make better, and sculpt into the story you were always meant to write. As much as writing is about revising, revising can’t happen if you don’t have a first draft.

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