Getting it Down: Crappy First Drafts

PhotobucketPlease welcome Barbara Mountjoy, who was a semi-finalist in WU’s search for an unpubbed contributor. She wrote:

I’ve been writing for 40-plus years, since I was 10. I have been a published writer for over 35 years, including seven years as a reporter and editor at the South Dade News Leader in Homestead, Florida. My list of publications includes fiction in Matriarch’s Way and Woman magazines, and romantic fiction in the Star.

My non-fiction book 101 Little Instructions for Surviving Your Divorce, was published by Impact Publishers in 1999. I regularly write technology articles and television reviews at Firefox News. Two other books featured my stories in the past year: A Cup of Comfort for Divorced Women, in December 2008, and A Cup of Comfort for Adoptive Parents, in June 2009.

I have a number of novel manuscripts, but I’ve yet to find an agent or editor for them, despite years of trying.

We loved her essay on giving yourself permission to write poorly, and we think you will too. Oh, and she loves dark chocolate (bonus!). Enjoy!

Getting it Down: Crappy First Drafts

The first draft may be stumbling and exhausting, but the next draft or drafts will be soaring and exhilarating. Only have faith: the first sentence can’t be written until the last sentence has been written. Only then do you know where you’ve been going, and where you’ve been.
— from The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates

Even for those who are planners instead of pantsers, Joyce Carol Oates has it right.

During the writing of a story, the characters, the situations, the timelines change to fit new thoughts that come to the writer in process. Those pesky quandaries—how does the red herring get into place? How can he know where she’ll be if he doesn’t have a GPS? How can an electrical fire burn down a garage using only woodworking tools and a pared-down wire?—sometimes don’t resolve themselves until the end.

So how can the writer know where to find herself until it’s done?

This resolution calls for a first draft.

Now, “first draft,” as in completed all the way to the end, may be as scary to you as “boogeyman,” but it shouldn’t be. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, “Even better news…is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”

There. If Anne Lamott says it, you’ve got permission to write a crappy first draft. Go for it.

Writers often complain of the inner perfectionist who forces them to stop, reread what they’ve written, and tweak, audit, or retype until they are so discouraged they can’t continue. This work will never be good enough! they say. Another effort for the shelf.

But this will never get you a first draft.

A true gift to yourself is the promise to release that small voice in your head. Send it on vacation to the Bahamas, if you’d like (and it had better send you a postcard!). Put it out of listening range. Get your words down on paper. Finish what you thought you had to say, so that you can discover what you really need to say.

I do this each year with NaNoWriMo. During these “Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon,” I commit myself to drafting the fleshed-out skeleton of a new work in toto, at least 50,000 words, usually more. I don’t edit. I don’t tear out my hair, even if the story takes an unexpected turn as I discover more about the characters. I keep writing.

Even potential plot holes, mussy motives, and exact how-to issues don’t murder the story. There’s rewriting for that.

E.B. White said, “The best writing is rewriting.” He didn’t say, “The most fun writing is rewriting,” or “The most inspired writing is rewriting.” But only in rewriting can we discover the best parts of our work and polish them to a brilliant shine.

All we need is the courage to get that first draft down.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s xJasonRogersx



  1. says

    I used to reread and retweak and it took forever to finish a novel, which I then had to revise anyway (and the revising was harder because all the polishing made it sound good when the plot was weak). It’s definitely true that you need to get to the end before you can see what you really want to do with the story, so you might as well keep moving forward with that first draft. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. says

    Love this. :)

    I allow myself blind optimism during a first draft: this is the best thing I’ve written yet! Otherwise I lose the motivation to continue. Once the first draft is complete, the blinders come off. Second drafts (and however many that follow) require a good dose of realism. I’m not sure where I originally saw this quote, or who said it, but it has always been true for me: Write the first draft with your heart and the second draft with your head.

    In my current WIP, I realized shortly after I’d written a section that the entire timeline was off by two weeks. But instead of stressing over it right then and there, I simply made a note of it and continued the story. On my second draft pass, this mistake required rewrites in more than one chapter to make sure everything jived correctly, but if I’d done those while in “first draft” mode, I probably would have lost my “first draft” mojo, and the story would have suffered. Second drafts are much more analytical than first drafts, but they can still be thrilling because you know you’re serving your story in the best way possible.

    Thanks so much for this article, and good luck with your agent search, Barbara!

  3. says

    NaNoWriMo is really an excellent way to start this process. I’ve done it two years now and as the creator’s say themselves–write with wild abandon. Just write. I’m looking forward to November already when I’ll do what you suggest and send all those naysayers in my head on vacation!

  4. says

    Absolutely NaNo is useful for writers. I have participated 2 years in a row and those are the best first drafts I’ve ever written.
    The key is to just close your eyes and write everyday. Some days it’s hard, and some days it’s easy but getting words on the page everyday will built to that first (crappy or not so crappy) draft.
    Once it’s on the page, you can fix it.

  5. says

    Love this – I am queen of the revision – 16 on Long Run Home – each one better. And what a joy to find the perfect word or perfect phrase. They are so rare but what writing is all about for me – it’s a moment of creation that I say human beings are searching for in whatever they do. Along that line, first drafts are nothing more than an outline of the story for me –

  6. says

    I’m usually at my most creative when I write stream-of-consciousness on almost any subject, including fiction, opinions, or essays.

    I finally broke habits acquired through years of writing software training manuals and tutorials and now allow myself to just write and fix later.

    Because I’m currently writing from notes my parents left many years ago about my father’s family, I need to include all the relevant events and the sequences in which they occur. I know more than I ever wanted to about some of the ‘characters’ but nonetheless, they keep revealing more of themselves… and lead me in different directions while I’m getting acquainted with them.

    Another change: instead of starting with chapter one and working through to the end, I draft individual ‘scenes’ as I’m inspired to do so and will put them in the proper chapters and sequences before I begin serious editing.

    Writing is so much more fun when I just write and don’t try to combine the creative process the ‘striving for perfection’ phase.

  7. says

    Barbara, I really enjoyed your post. I used to not look forward to revising–I’d groan like a kid who’s just been told to turn off the TV and go to bed. LOL

    But now I appreciate what I can do with revising–“polishing it to a brilliant shine”, as you said–so that the work matches the vision I had of it when drafting it.

  8. Paula R. says

    Thank you so much for this post. It is quite timely. I need to get the first draft down, but I get bogged down in wanting to do it right, and doubt keeps creeping in that it has stunted my progress. I haven’t been able to write much because of it, and I hope that I can get pass it soon. I started it in NaNoWriMo as well, but I let things get in the way. I can’t wait to get back to the writing phase of things without worrying about getting it right. This is a learning process after all, especially for a new writer like me. Thanks for the reminder. I am going back to vomiting out my first draft so I can finish it, and learn what I need to learn from it.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  9. says

    “Finish what you thought you had to say, so that you can discover what you really need to say.”

    I enjoyed the post in its entirety, but this quote really encapsulated the message. Thanks for this.

  10. says

    Really enjoyed the post. Takes a lot of discipline to put the blinkers on and finish a first draft, but I agree its well worth the effort.

  11. Sheree Wood says

    I’m having a hard time following the advice of just getting it down. I like having the solid footing of a well-written previous chapter to bank off of into the next. When people say to just get it down, I am never clear about how rough that “getting it down” might be. For me, I can’t just throw my first thoughts onto the page and hope that they will lead me to where I want to go. I feel like that would lead to so many missteps, that the rewrite would be noting short of Herculean.

    Is there anyone else who needs to smooth and polish before moving on? I read one poster who said that she likes to polish a chapter before moving onto the next. I feel like I fall in that category. Anyone else?

    Feeling Alone In Tampa,

  12. says

    Great post, and I love Lydia’s contribution in the comments too:

    “I allow myself blind optimism during a first draft: this is the best thing I’ve written yet!”

    What a great attitude! And it’s not even necessarily a lie. Because by the time you’re done with revisions, it might (and probably will) be! I have to remember this when I’m working on my next draft. Which will be in oh, about ten minutes…

  13. says

    Funny you should have a post on writing first drafts on the weekend in which I FINISHED my very FIRST first draft of a novel EVER.

    Yes, it’s shitty. It’s fragmented. I resorted to telling instead of showing at times just to get through to the next section. But, for the first time on a long work, I wrote the words “The End.”

    Having a completed first draft is like finding a complete T Rex skeleton in the ground. Now I have to dig it up, clean off the bones and reassemble it, preferably into an exciting pose that will cause observers to “ooh/aah” and dream.

    I used to be an endless polisher so that I could feel satisfaction with what I’d written. But nothing has been as satisfying as writing that ending.

    I’m also keeping in mind that I can only have one first first-time for this. So, as I let the book “cool,” I’m savoring the feeling that’s been a long time coming.

  14. says

    I love crappy first drafts because you can change POV, main characters, abandon plot lines, change character names and genders and not worry about it as you get a feel for the story you are really trying to write.

    And if there is any spark of a decent story there, you can clean it up in the 2nd draft.

  15. says

    Oh yes! I’m an extensive outliner, but stories can tend to go their own direction. My biggest problem with the last novel I tried to write was that the characters didn’t want to follow the pre-established outline, which just grew longer to try to accommodate everything new that was trying to happen. Learning to let my first draft be absolute crap was a difficult but valuable lesson. I’m glad I have Anne Lamott’s permission. I only hope the revisions make a tremendous improvement.

  16. says


    I feel out of control when I plow ahead without a plan, so I spend a lot of time outlining and discovering my characters before I begin that first draft. With most of the big pieces in place, I can feel free to write with abandon. When I hit a potential problem, I make a note of it and move forward, or I’d never finish any draft at all.

  17. says

    I have been writing my entire life but it wasn’t until recently that I partook on the journey to write my first novel. This lesson is so completely freeing! Thank you for giving me this.

  18. says

    Great advice – I’m struggling with the first draft of a YA novel now. It was particularly comforting to read what Anne Lamott said. As for the suggestion to send the small internal voice to the Bahamas – there’s a problem. My story is set in the Bahamas and I’m thinking of going back there to do more research. Too bad the small voice in my head will be there waiting for me.