Some Thoughts on First Drafts


I absolutely love first drafts. They’re my favourite part of the whole writing process. I love exploring a story for the very first time, getting to know new characters and discovering unexpected surprises throughout the book. But first drafts are hard. I don’t know about you, but most of my time is spent sitting there, staring at the blinking cursor, trying to think of the right words to fill that blank page. It’s difficult. No wonder writer’s block strikes so often.

For the past 3-4 months or so, I’ve been solidly editing. It’s been quite a while since I wrote anything brand new. But now it’s November, and it’s NaNoWriMo, and I’m just starting my novel for the month. And it’s hard. Writing a first draft is so different to rearranging words and events in editing, or polishing prose. I’m having to start again with nothing.

And I think that’s the problem.

When we write a first draft, we’re starting with nothing more than an idea, or maybe an outline, and nothing more than that. When you edit, you’ve got something to work with, no matter how bad. It certainly has its own set of challenges and problems, but at least you have something to base your writing on. It’s not a blank page. You’re not having to create characters, plots, whole worlds out of your own head.

You’ve got so much freedom when you’re drafting, but it’s almost too much freedom. Literally anything could happen and that can be paralysing. How are you supposed to pick the right choice out of an infinite number of options? How can you tell if it’s the right thing to do or not? No wonder the blank page is such a terrifying place. It’s full of potential. Cram packed full and running over with so much potential it’s frightening.

Because the book in your head is so bright and shiny and perfect. It has the potential to be the best book ever written. Every book does. And even though we don’t mean to, sometimes we subconsciously pressure ourselves to capture that perfectness first time around. When you sit down to write a first draft, that book is still perfect. It hasn’t been tarnished by clumsy phrasing, cliché plots, or flat characters. It’s got unlimited potential. And the need to get it right first time round can be crippling. Because it’s amazing, it’s gripping, it’s right there and if you could just find the right words to capture it, this story would touch the hearts of every reader.

Stop. Breathe.

No first draft is ever going to be perfect. That shimmering, perfect book you’ve got in your mind? That is the product of hundreds of hours of blood sweat and tears, thousands of hours of writing and rewriting and polishing until every phrase sings. Nothing that beautiful is ever come by easily or quickly. To reach that end point, that perfect book, you first have to start with your lump of raw material. A page full of wrong words that you polish and change until they’re right. How can something perfect come from nothing at all?

But that’s what writing is, a foray into the unknown. A thousand wrong paths taken in search of one right one. It can seem to take forever. It can be frustrating. But at the end, that’s your book, the shining, brilliant, beautiful thing. And every step you take, every wrong turn is one closer to getting it right. But first you need your clay, your pile of wrong words and missteps. So put down that bad first draft. That’s the real first step towards your perfect book.

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  1. Thank you for this, Imogen! I'm not participating in Nano, but I am in the middle of a tricky first draft...and I HAVE made it worse by getting frustrated when what lands on the page is inferior to that perfect book in my head. (Which is probably 98% of the time. XD)

    At this point in the novel-creating process, I can use all the reminders like this I can get--thanks!

    1. The middle of a tricky first draft is the worst, isn't it? You're far enough away from the beginning that it's not fresh any more, but not close enough to the end that you have hope in sight yet, and all you can see is the awfulness of the words on the page. I'm so glad I was able to give you a boost. You can totally get through your draft! I'm rooting for you!

    2. You described it perfectly! ^_^ Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. Ohmygoodness - THIS.

    This is exactly where I am right now... You captured it perfectly.

    I rarely suffer from this thing, "writer's block" that everyone talks about. That's just not me.

    But just now? I was second guessing myself. Like, "everyone in THE WORLD has written a book just like this one" or "these characters are so dumb" or "you have contradicted yourself five times today... You aren't making the least bit of sense right now..."

    Anyway, thank you for this beautiful and perfectly-timed post! ;)

    1. I'm with you actually. I rarely get true writer's block. But writer's doubt, especially in the first draft, is so hard to deal with sometimes, isn't it? It's always so much worse in the first draft because it is awful, and you know it's awful, and even though first drafts are meant to be bad there's always that little hope that you might write something decent this time. I'm so glad this reached you at the right time!

  3. Thank you so much for this post! Usually I don't have a problem writing, but because, like you, I've been spending so much time editing, it's proving difficult to just write and gets words on a page.
    I've been keeping up with my word counts, but after reading this, I totally feel better!
    Thank you, and happy NaNo to you too :)

    1. There's such a huge difference between writing and editing, isn't there? I'd almost forgotten just how terrible my first drafts really are. It's a bit of a shock to the system getting back to drafting! Then again, I suppose that's part of why NaNo's so good. You've got the get the words without worrying about the quality. Good luck with your NaNo! We're going to get through this!

  4. This post is so great! And I'm not sure how I didn't find your blog before now... I *love* *love* *love* the name! First drafts seem great, but then you edit them, and you're like, "I wrote this garbage? No, no way."


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