Writing is stressful. It isn’t this blissfully serene activity, where writers spend their days on high-backed chairs sipping a perfectly roasted cup of coffee while story arcs magically plot and write themselves.
No. every word choice is agonizing. Every plot twist takes time and preparation to, well, plot.
From the second draft to the fourth (or fifth, tenth, or how ever many it may take to get to a final), stress levels are high as you boil down the words to their most perfect form, and strip away any imperfections within the narrative arc.
But here’s the thing: a lot of writers stress about this in their first draft. And that’s a bad thing. You may be asking yourself: “but shouldn’t my first draft be the best it can be so I can build from there?”
Here’s the short answer: no, it doesn’t.
The longer, more elaborate answer is that your first draft doesn’t need to be perfect, because perfection isn’t the goal.
No story is perfect, ever, but especially in the first few drafts. The story is still figuring out what it is trying to be. Even if you, the writer, may think you have everything perfectly plotted out and ready to go. The story needs room to breathe and expand.
The only expectation you should ever have of a first draft is to have it written. It doesn’t need to be good. Doesn’t even need to have all the pieces. It just needs to be on paper, and it needs to be finished in the sense that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the first draft, the focus should be on story and making sure the main plot points are all in the right-ish order.
You can always go back and tinker with the writing to your heart’s content. But focusing on the writing is kind of like choosing an outfit without looking at the forecast: might work out, but you might need to get changed. When you focus on the story, then you can make sure the pacing is good, the characters are where they need to be at the right time, and all the steps are in place.
The first draft is as bad as your story will ever get. It’s all improvement from this point on.
I’m a huge advocate of a bad first draft. My first draft for A Forgotten Past was just under 50,000 words. A few dozen drafts later, and the final was just over 100,000. The first draft was not publishable. Neither was the second or third. I would never have dreamed of sending it to an agent.
And that alleviated a lot of pressure. The stakes were lower. This draft just needed to be done, typos, mistakes, and run-on sentences galore. I didn’t care, because it didn’t matter. No one, short of a few trusted friends, would ever read that monstrosity.
But because I didn’t sweat the small stuff, I was able to get a first draft out in a few short months. And from there, I refined, re-plotted, re-wrote, and edited, edited, edited.
All the writers I know all agree on one thing: it’s a lot easier to edit than to write. Staring at a blank page is awful. The stakes are so high, needlessly so.
But editing is a thing of beauty. You have an outline, maybe not a clear one, but an idea is beginning to form, and it just needs some polishing. Your first draft is the putty that you need to sculpt your masterpiece. It needs to be sculpted and mashed and cut and worried for it to resemble something worth displaying.
Without that first bad draft of A Forgotten Past, I might never have finished the whole book. Or maybe I’d still be writing it. But by hanging up my pride as a writer and embracing a get-‘er done attitude, I was able to have fun just writing and throwing ideas onto a page for an older and wiser version of myself to edit at a later time.
The more time you waste on trying to find the exact, perfect word to describe something, the less time and energy you have on building your story.
And remember: story is everything. Readers will forgive a good book that is written okay. But good writing cannot cover for a bad story.