The First Draft

Writing is a simple process, only people make it seem terrifying.

Whether you outline or not, when it’s time to do the actual writing there’s still a blank Word document staring back at you and it’s frightening. All sorts of ideas keep running through your mind. Or maybe you feel like there’s something missing – that brilliant idea which is going to turn your novel into a masterpiece.

Whenever I set up to write, even a blog post for that matter, I want it to my best. I know a lot of people feel the same, but this, in no way, should add unnecessary pressure to the writer. As Stephen King said in his book about writing, you write with your door closed.

If you’re constantly worrying whether or not people are going to like your story or whether or not someone’s going to actually buy it, or if you keep dreaming about that million dollar advance Random House is going to give you then you’re way off track. When I write my first draft, I don’t write for an audience or for my perfect reader. I set up to write the very best story that I can simply because I want to. After all, I write because it makes me happy. It’s what motivates me. Anything else come as a bonus, so for now I use just the right side of my brain, the creative part.

In Finding Forrester, Sean Connery’s character, the reclusive writer William Forrester, has this to say, “You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

So writing is as simple as this: you write one word. You stare at it for a while – it’s kind of lonely there on your computer screen – so you write another one. One word at a time, one word after another until you have a sentence. Then you write another sentence, then magic happens: sentences form paragraphs, paragraphs form chapters, and then you have a finished first draft.

I consider myself to be a slow writer. Sometimes I worry too much. My record is 5000 words (from 9 PM till 5 AM), but I’ve spent as long as 9 hours working on a single sentence, trying to make it perfect. And I was wrong to do so. Yeah, okay, I admit, it’s all about each writer’s way of writing – some try to sculpt each sentence into perfection – but I’ve realized that my first drafts don’t have to be perfect.

A first draft can be terrible as long as you don’t show it to anyone. You turn off that inner editor, that voice that keeps screaming at you to go back and revise, to wait some more, and you can be as careless as you want. God, how much I love the sound of my fingers tapping against the keyboard – that tap, tap, tap sometimes leads to some wonderful prose. Sometimes it doesn’t.

For me, writing the first draft equals freedom. I’m not bound by rules, I can experiment as much as I like. Re-writes and editing will take care of the rest, but for now, while I’m filling blank pages, I’m actually building a base for my story, something that can be sculpted into perfection.

I’ve been reluctant to write at times. Maybe I couldn’t see a way to make the story progress. I write my stories from start to finish, no matter the way they’re presented, chronologically or not. I write them the way I think they should be read, and even though I may know what happens in the next chapter, I don’t skip to that chapter until I’ve finished what I started. Some writers do the opposite. I can’t. Like I said, we’re all different.

Sometimes I get this scene stuck in my head. It’s all vivid and unbelievably good, and I want to write it down, to get it out, but I don’t. I use that image and the excitement it provides me trying to reach it. If I were to write that scene first, I couldn’t use it to build momentum to get me through the tricky parts.

So my idea of writing a first draft is this: I can be as careless as I want. I can be really terrible, and I don’t fret about it simply because I know I can make it better, I know that after I give my first draft some time (usually two-three weeks), when I’ll read it, I’ll be able to change it, to make it seem effortless, to sculpt those words, to change what doesn’t work, and to use the other half of my brain. But the first draft is all about putting the words on paper and nothing else.

What’s your habit of writing your first draft?

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17 thoughts on “The First Draft

  1. My first draft is usually so horrible I find myself laughing so hard when I’m re-writing. One thing I’ve noticed though, is that beyond all the typos and badly written grammar, the raw emotional can usually be found in there.

  2. I feel comfortable with an outline as I work on my first draft. I still get the typos and bad grammar, but that’s not the concern of a first draft…I keep telling myself.

  3. I just start writing down my ideas the way they are in my head at that time, no rules, just write. Walk away for awhile and come back. Re read everything and number it by relevance to where I want to be at the end of the day.
    Then rewrite in order of relevance. Walk away. Come back and start putting it all together. This is only what works for me, not what I would advise anyone else to do. Sounds strange but it works.

    1. I teach the writing process, and this exactly what I stress to my students. While the writing process follows a general pattern, everyone applies it differently, based on the way they think and interact with the world. What’s most important is discovering and developing the writing process that works best for them.

      1. I like the way you think regarding this. A one size fits all approach to teaching does a disservice to the student and the process. My favorite teachers were the ones who understood that. “What works best for them”

      2. My approach had its start way back when I was a student and ordered to write with an outline. I’d write the paper first and do the outline from that. Mind-mapping for prewriting? Forget it. My head would explode.

      3. Teaching writing would be much like teaching art. So many variables involved to have a ‘one size fits all’ approach. I had a wonderful teacher in college that made writing fun. She was great. Filled with compassion and patience.

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