Tips and Tricks, Writers' Resource

Writing Terribly: The First Draft Struggle

Here’s something that most of us can agree on: first drafts are terrible.

Here’s something that not a lot of people internalize: first drafts are supposed to be terrible.

Unless you’re a super genius, getting it right on the first try is nigh impossible. I think that deep down, we’re all aware that first drafts are just the first try, the rough draft, and it’s supposed to be more fun than cohesive. Rationally and logically, that’s obvious. We’re not going to get the story right on the first try. Yet, we still feel the need to try.

Ever since starting college, I’ve been putting more thought into what I write and how I write it — and don’t get me wrong, it’s just as important to think critically about your own work as it is to think critically about others. But that mindset makes writing first drafts extremely difficult. Going for perfection on the first go-around puts a lot of pressure on you. Overthinking which literary techniques to use, why, and where to place them can easily lead to a stalled project.

That’s why it’s important to just have fun when writing the first draft. It’s a time for exploration and play, not (over)analyzing. Think too much about where you’re going, and you’ll take forever to get there, if you get there at all. One of the best things about writing, in my opinion, is delving into the unknown and then making sense of the chaos later.

So, as we near the midway point of Preptober and head into NaNoWriMo November, here are some things to keep in mind as you’re writing your rough draft.

No One Has to See This Except You

What would my friends think if I tell them I’m a writer and then show them…this? What would my professors say about this chaotic, disorganized mess? What would my mother say?

The good news is, I don’t need to worry about any of that. When I write my first draft, it can be as secret as I want it to be. And I never let anyone read a draft as I’m writing it. When it comes to novels, that sometimes means that no one can even look at it for about a year until it’s finished. You don’t have to wait quite that long, but it’s always helpful to remember that since you are in charge of your story, you don’t have to show it to anyone just yet. That should take most of the stress away right off the bat.

Write the First Draft for Yourself

This may sound selfish at first, but the reason I first start writing a draft is because I came across an idea that I wanted to explore for myself, and only for myself. It’s not so much the destination as it is the journey that excites me. It’s typically not as helpful to follow trends (with some exceptions), and a lot of us writers don’t get as excited when one of our friends says, “I have a story idea for you!” That’s because we write to enjoy writing our own stories. Anyone else’s just wouldn’t be the same. Only we know what stories we want to read the most. I’ve heard countless writers say that the reason they started writing is just because they wanted more out of an already existing story — but this time, they wanted it their way. Heck, the reason I first started writing fantasy is because I couldn’t find a highly specific magical story that I desperately wanted to read. There’s a story only you can tell.

Of course, once the draft has passed from the first draft stage to the revision stage, it’s super helpful to think about ideas that others have given you or to look at the story from an angle that you would never have thought of before — as an example, doing multiple revisions can become a slog if the main character only knows what you know.

It’s fun to do research, branch out, and start incorporating different things into your story. But for the first draft, this is all you really need to worry about: Does this story excite me? If it doesn’t, it’ll be agony to finish, and even if you do, who would want to read a book that even the author wouldn’t want to read? But write the story that excites you, and that excitement will carry you right to the end of the draft, and it’ll be infectious to anyone who reads it afterward.

You Don’t Have to Have an Outline

Those who swear by writing with an outline will tell you that you can’t start even a rough draft without some sort of guideline. And those who prefer to fly by the seat of their pants will say that outlines are a hindrance. I recommend finding someplace in between. I’ve had draft that went well without any sort of outline and drafts that were never finished when I had a step-by-step guide, and vice versa. It all depends on the story and on you.

NaNoWriMo uses the terms “planner” and “pantser” to describe these different types of writers, and there are multiple quizzes you can take if you aren’t sure where your allegiances lie. There’s also something in between, called a “plantser,” which is pretty much what I’ve become. Try experimenting with all sorts of preparation techniques to find your sweet spot.

You Don’t Have to Know Where You’re Going

This next bit of advice is in the same vein as the previous, and with luck it’s pretty comforting. You don’t need to know what your story is about, who your characters truly are, or even how the story ends. As you write, you can let the story surprise you, by writing anything (and everything) you want. In fact, personally I find the unexpected twists and turns in the story to be the most fun. And if you yourself are surprised and delighted by what you accidentally stumble across, then that’s even better!

All this is to say that as long as you have fun as you’re writing, you don’t need to know anything about the actual story (that’ll come with time and experimentation), you don’t need a step-by-step guide or even a vague one, you can write whatever you want to put down on paper, and no one ever has to lay eyes on it. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

See? First drafts aren’t so bad after all!

When you finish that draft, let it sit for a while, and come back to it, you’ll probably see many, many, many glaring inconsistencies, weird word choices, and a host of other problems. But that’s not our concern right now. Right now, we’re here to play.

There will come a time when you need to know everything about your characters, your story world, and everything else. But the first draft stage isn’t necessarily that time. Play hard, have fun, and, most importantly, find out what sort of story excites you the most and write that! No matter how it turns out, you’ll have the time of your life, and that’s what counts. When it comes to stumbling your way through a first draft, there’s no such thing as wasted time.

Photo by Pim Chu on Unsplash