How to make friends with your first draft

Posted by Petra on June 21, 2020

One piece of writing advice that I have heard and seen written in a million different ways is "first drafts are crap, but that's ok". That is one thing that everyone that has anything to say about writing seems to agree on. But just because there is a consensus on it, doesn't make it any easier for a newbie like myself to wrap my head around. Reading someone else's published book - that will be version 3, 6, 12 or however many rounds of editing they did to get it to a state they were happy with. Logically I know that I can't compare my embryonic, rambling first draft with that. But emotionally, I still did. And because of that my writing stalled. I kept going over the same scene over and over. It needed fleshing out, the dialogue needed polishing etc etc.

What helped me move forward was nothing more than a sleight of hand. I tricked myself. And continue to do so. But it works, so I'm keeping it.

Instead of looking at the document I was writing as my Book, I named it "Skeleton". I am compiling the bones of the story. A bit of dialogue here, a bit of action, a bit of description - and occasionally a bit in coloured italic saying something like “and here there needs to be a scene where such and such is revealed”.

It is amazing how freeing that change of viewpoint was. I went from constantly getting stuck and struggling to get going the next day, to always being able to write something (when I managed to get my bum in front of the computer that is, but that is a different problem for a different day). Each day I no longer started (and got stuck on) staring at all the things that needed fixing in what I wrote yesterday. Instead I left it, safe in the knowledge that I will come back and do lots of work on it - once I have finished the skeleton of the story. Because ultimately, once I get all the pieces of the story down on paper there may be scenes that are no longer needed or needs to be very different to how I first wrote them. So why spend lots of time on polishing something that may end up on the cutting room floor?

I know - seems like such a small thing to have such an impact. And it may not work for you. But for me, it changed me from being constantly bogged down to constantly pushing the story forwards. Every day I sit down and ask myself "and then what happens?" and start typing. 

Sometimes stuff comes out that I really like, sometimes it feels really clumsy and horrible. But that's fine - as long as the story bones continue to pile on, that means I am moving forward. And sometimes something turns up in a day's writing that means something I wrote earlier might not quite fit. If that happens, I'll add a comment to the earlier part in the document pointing out the potential issue so when the time comes to progress to Draft 2, I know there is an inconsistency in there. And then I move on.

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