It is common advice that a completed first draft is far more important than the actual quality of that first draft. Writers are universally urged not to get sidetracked by editing while writing the first draft; all those imperfections will be resolved in the later drafts.
Completing the first draft is essential, but I think that this universal advice needs tempering. There is a synergy in first drafts that needs to be honored, a magic sense of focused story promise that informs the later shaping of the work. A ‘crappily written’ but complete first draft with that synergy is a joy to revise; a ‘crappily written’ first draft without that synergy is an aimless bog of revisions. The goal of any first draft is not just to type ‘The End’ on the last of a sequence of pages, but to have embedded within those sequential pages the details and clarity necessary to make subsequent revisions purposeful.
How to get to a synergistic first draft? Step 1: Know what your writing process is and honor it.
Two Basic Writing Processes—Trimming and Embellishing
In my experience writers, like artists, tend to fall into two basic writing patterns—those who trim and those who embellish. Michelangelo took solid blocks of stone and carved away the extraneous pieces; Degas added clay and materials bit by bit to an armature to build up the forms that were later cast into metal. Writers who are trimmers take a first draft and then tighten and cut until it is focused; writers who are embellishers generate a bare bones full draft and then flesh it out until it is complete.
These differing writing strategies—trimming or embellishing—have consequences for what kind of first draft is needed.
Trimmers thrive on long first drafts. The story essence is buried in the verbiage, unnecessary scenes and extraneous details. Editing is a matter of cutting out the extra (think machete not penknife). Trimmers can cut a first draft down substantially in size—to two thirds, or half its original length.
Embellishers thrive on sparse first drafts. These drafts function like an armature, providing the structure upon which later embellishments hang. Editing is a matter of elaborating and filling out the promise of that first draft. Embellishers can double or triple the length of the first draft.
A ‘Good’ First Draft Gives the Writer what the Process Needs
Because trimmers and embellishers require very different kinds of first drafts, the blanket advice to make progress not perfection is not universally helpful.
In general, trimmers benefit from minimizing time spent on revising details and phrasing in the first draft. Until the trimmer brings the story to its end, revisions simply generate more words and scenes, not necessarily better focus. The crucial knowledge of what to keep and what to eliminate develops along the way, as a thread within the overly long work. Only by the end of the first draft does the trimmer see the critical focus of the story that allows them to cut the work into what it should be.
For trimmers, the constant advice to get that first draft ‘done’ rather than ‘perfect’ is critical—it gets them to the stage where the work’s focus is visible and the subsequent revisions can be purposeful.
Embellishers, however, can benefit from spending a little more time and thought on their first draft. Getting down the flavor of a scene accurately in the first pass—whether through the fine-tuning of details or word choice–can be important. As in sculpture, the exact shape of the armature is incredibly difficult to correct once the embellishment is underway. Setting the initial ‘shape’ of the first draft is critical to being able to revise it into the finished story.
For embellishers, the constant advice to get that first draft ‘done’ rather than ‘perfect’ can push them to move on even when there is not enough information on the page to inform their later embellishing. Subsequent drafts become more difficult; revisions stall out where there is not enough detail or where the underlying structure is not clear.
Honor your Writing Process while Getting the First Draft Done
I am certainly not giving anyone carte blanche to edit endlessly during a first draft. First drafts will never be perfect and they need to get done.
The point I am trying to make is to honor your writing process while getting that first synergistic draft done. If you work better by revising a little more during first drafts, and you are still making progress, then advice be damned. Give yourself the time to revise.
If you find yourself spending more time revising than writing a first draft, then it’s time to institute some limits. Only let yourself look at a few pages of what’s already written each day or set a timer on your revision time.
In the later drafts, whether you are a Michelangelo, taking a block of stone and carving away the extraneous material, or whether you are a Degas, adding delicate twists of clay to the armature before casting perfection, the critical art is in knowing the essence of the final product. Until you can ‘see’ the essence of the story, you are still in your first draft, even if you’ve already written ‘The End’.
Are you a pruner or an embellisher? Have you ever had a first draft that just wasn’t fleshed out enough? Or do you think getting the first draft done regardless of quality really should be universal advice?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!
Please note: Normally I donate my cups-o-joe directly to Writer Unboxed, but the coffee fund has been getting low, so for this post any cups-o-joe proffered will be gratefully and personally received.
Image Credits: Left: Edgar Degas, Sofia, Bronze Sculptures 01102010, National Art Gallery, Washington, DC. Photo by Aladjov – Own work, Public Domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11653633  Right: Michelangelo, Atlas slave, Galleria Dell’ Accademia, Florence. Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39154766