It goes without saying, but writing a first draft is hard. You put hours and days and weeks and months of work into something that you’re most likely going to rewrite at least once, which can make it feel like it’s all been for nothing. At the end of 2017, I finished the first draft of my first completed novel, and I’ve been rewriting it ever since. The story has come a long way from that early draft, but it taught me so much about my story and myself as a writer. And of course, your method my vary! But here are 5 things I never would have learned if it hadn’t been for writing a terrible first draft.
It doesn’t have to be perfect at first
Possibly the most obvious one, but probably the most important. Your first draft will be far from perfect the first time you write it. In my experience, the further from perfect it is, the easier it makes the editing process. By the time I’d finished writing my first draft, it was so messy I instantly knew where to start revising it. By the time I finished revisions, I’d figured out how to rewrite it. Everyone writes differently, but I think it’s important not to put too much pressure on yourself to make your first draft perfect—whether it’s good or bad, most first drafts ultimately don’t see the light of day. Which leads me to my next point…
It’s better to have something finished than something polished
Yes, finishing a first draft probably feels even better if you’re completely happy with everything you’ve written. But either way, it still feels pretty good. And you can’t move on and improve your draft unless you, you know, actually finish it. My first draft was full of inconsistencies, plot points I’d changed my mind on halfway through, and a LOT of waffle—and somehow, it still managed to lack plot. I struggle to make sense of that first draft now, but I know for a fact that I never would have finished it if I had allowed myself to go back and edit. Editing as you work through a draft might work for some people, but personally, as a serial perfectionist, it’s a dangerous rabbit hole for me to fall down.
You won’t know your characters until the end
You might think you know your characters before you start writing your first draft. You might figure out every little thing about them and plot how they’re going to react to every twist and turn you throw at them, but you probably won’t fully know your characters until the end of their story. Maybe they won’t even know themselves until the end of their story. Characters grow and develop on the page, and I often find that mine are completely different people at the start of a first draft than at the end. Part of that is down to character development, but part of it comes from me finding their voice on page, from figuring out how they act and react to all the hardships I put them through, and from realising how they act when everyone’s looking and when no-one but the reader is looking. For all my planning, I’ve still never found a better way to get to know my characters than to actually write them.
Your plot is subject to change
My plot—or lack thereof—looked completely different in the first draft to how it looks now. It’s typical advice, but learning how to kill your darlings is one of the most important things a writer can do. And I’m still learning—even now, I can see the bare bones of that first draft’s plot in my story, even as I whittle away at the details and fine tune it as much as I possibly can. Your first draft isn’t going anywhere, even if you rewrite your story five or ten or a hundred times. Change is necessary to polish and revise your draft, and even if you get rid of some things you decide you should have really kept, your first draft will still be there waiting for you. By all means, kill your darlings—but don’t bury them. You never know when they might come in handy (okay, this took a very dark turn).
There’s no right way to write
Of course, everything I’ve said is just what works for me as a writer! Writing a first draft helps you discover what works for you and what doesn’t—it’s really just a process of trial and error. While I figured out my first draft worked better if I pantsed the whole thing, the first draft of the next book I attempted to write failed spectacularly because I tried to do the same thing. Just like what works for one writer doesn’t work for another, what works for one draft might not necessarily work for another. The only way to learn more about writing is to write! And that means struggling through those evil first drafts. I promise, the payoff will be worth it in the end.
What are your experiences with writing a first draft? Are you working on a first draft now? As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments.