If you scroll down a bit, you’ll see one of my favorite quotes from Anne Lamott and her “how to write” book, Bird By Bird. In it, she delivers a lot of good advice for aspiring writers with wit and verve, so much so that you’ll want to read it again just for her sense of humor. Hidden within the chapters of that book is a section on writing first drafts. As a writer of young adult fiction anticipating that some of those young adults (and the parents of the same) will find this blog, I won’t repeat her moniker while discussing this stage of the writing process. Instead, I’ll choose a toned-down equivalent – crappy first drafts.
When I was a young(er), less experienced writer, I labored under the misconception that every time I sat down to write, perfect prose should spring from my mind fully formed onto the page before me. The blank page should transform my words into the finished product automatically, with my pen or keyboard as the conduit to brilliant wordplay, complex characters and engaging plot. The first draft would be the last draft, it would be held up as an example of the greatest tale that modern storytelling has to offer, and that would be that.
I was such a cute little novice writer.
The truth of the matter is, it never happens that way. Never, ever. I would consider myself lucky if I liked half of what ended up on the page, and more often than not, I would be completely unsatisfied with what I’d written. Largely, it was crap, a pale shadow of what I had intended to convey in my writing. It would send my perfectionism into fits of rage that would put the Hulk to shame, and leave me depressed and doubting my ability as a writer.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, one that took me a long time to discover but opened up my writing in all new ways. I’ll even give it some space so this mind-blowing concept doesn’t get lost in the shuffle, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to know that elusive key to turning crap writing into great writing.
Ready? Here it is:
Your first drafts are supposed to suck.
Who knew, right?
Seriously, your first draft isn’t supposed to be the be-all, end-all of spectacular writing. (And if it is, keep it to yourself, because you’ll have a legion of jealous writers hunting you down to usurp your magical powers for themselves.) The first draft is supposed to be crap, because that’s the only way you’ll get that story onto the page. Laboring over each chapter or even each line, polishing it to perfection before moving on to the next, is a surefire way to make sure you’ll never finish that story. You just have to let it flow, crap and all, and get to the end before you start polishing the crap to get to the gems within.
And there will be gems. A free flow of ideas, unfettered by perfectionism or your inner critic, will yield so much garbage, you’ll fear the stench will linger around you for years afterward. But hidden within all the crap will be the pieces of genius that will make your story. Some of it will be a shade off from what you had imagined it to be, and that’s okay. Some of it will be a pretty radical deviation from what you wanted it to be, and that’s okay, too. Sometimes these variations will inspire whole new facets of your story that you’d never stumble across otherwise, and these can take your story to the next level of greatness.
The secret is not to find a way to make sure your first draft is your final draft. The secret is to keep writing, to avoid getting discouraged, to stick with your story until the bitter end. Once you’ve got it all down from beginning to The End, you can go back any time you want to change up some words, maybe add in a few details you’d skipped before. You can do all the nitpicky stuff you want at your leisure, because the hard part is done.
I know the crappy first draft is not an easy thing to accomplish. If it was, everyone would be doing it. Rest assured, however, there’s no better way to write your tale, and the satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from getting that crappy first draft onto the page will lift your soul to unimaginable heights.
Then there’s the second draft, but that’s a story for another time…