Is it true that first drafts are always bad? 5 tips to write better ones

ship on a river with lighthouse - first drafts are always bad

You have heard it a million times at least. First drafts are always bad. First drafts suck. First drafts are shitty.

Really, you can choose any disparaging adjective and rest assured someone already stated that first drafts are just that too.

However, all this clamor doesn’t prove that first drafts must necessarily be always so bad. For example, it could simply be that a lot of people like to repeat a catchy phrase. That they love being involuntary vectors of a meme epidemic. It may also mean many people keep repeating and spreading such a meme because they find it reassuring. In fact, it frees authors from the burden of instant-perfection–and that’s actually a good thing.

In any case, fashions, fads, trends, memes, and so on must always be examined with a critical eye.

After all the fact everybody is running in one direction doesn’t necessarily make that direction the right one. It could only mean there are a lot of misinformed people around. And that they like running like lemmings.

First drafts are always bad… but they can be improved

In fact there are authors whose first drafts aren’t at all a sprawling hell of nonsense. On the contrary, they are well written, and though they still require revision, this is a much more straightforward process.

Generally this happens to the more experienced authors. In fact after a while they have been writing and revising and reading and studying the craft of writing they interiorize the principles of effective storytelling so well that even when they write a first draft they tend to make fewer and fewer mistakes than any beginning writer.

Indeed, they write smoother transitions and turn even the most difficult scenes into natural-flowing rivers of words.

What’s more, even those glaring holes in the plot that force many beginning writers to innumerable rewrites, become increasingly rare for those experienced writers. Besides, when they make their appearance they usually have to do with secondary aspects of the story.

In short, I believe that first drafts are always bad only for those writers who never stop to examine their works with an impartial eye, to try to better understand what are the biggest difficulties they encounter. Those writers who never make an orchestrated effort to improve their style in a systematic way.

Semantics mattersa man opening a jar with a heart inside - why editing is important

In any case, there’s an enormous difference between stating that all first drafts are shitty, and saying instead that first drafts can be shitty.

In the first case it’s like telling, even urging, writers to come up with whatever flashes through their mind. In the second it’s like telling them to work diligently at their first draft to make it as good as they can. But that they should also avoid fretting too much if their copy is far from flawless.

In the past I tried to write fast first drafts. First draft where I wrote down on the page whatever crossed my mind. And the results have been that I have had to subsequently slog hard and long to rinse my work poor first draft from all the shit I had stuffed in it.

It took me a lot of time. And it wasn’t any fun. Not in the least.

As a result of such traumatic and negative experiences, I set out to find a way to write better first drafts. First drafts that I could finish keeping a good pace, but that wouldn’t bog me down later with an endless revision process.

To do so I resorted to a few small adjustments in my writing process. These tweaks, though apparently of small import, can have a huge impact on both productivity and quality.

1) Pantsters and plotters – a false dichotomy

I’m a pantster. I really don’t like plotting. But even so, I’ve discovered that if I sit down to write at least a minimalist outline of the story I have in mind, four or five pages for a regular novel, I can subsequently write a lot more per session and with a higher degree of coherence.

The advantage of a minimalist plot is also that it doesn’t force you through any artificial hoops. It leaves you free to discover much of your story as you go. Yet helping you to be clear above all about the beginning of your story, it prevents you from building a tower on faulty foundations.

I know. I know. Everybody in the world knows about The Leaning Tower of Pisa. But for one such tower that doesn’t crumble to the ground there are thousand others that do exactly that…

2) Freewriting and first drafts – not the same thing

Don’t buy it. Don’t believe you must put down everything you think, and in whatever way you feel like. Free writing is an exercise to help you overcome writer’s block, and hyper self-criticism. Just that. It’s an exercise.

First drafts are like cats. You must approach them with a certain degree of attention

Instead first drafts aren’t exercises. They are the core of your story. In their innards they hide immensely valuable foundations.

It’s a bit like with handwriting. I mean, my handwriting is so bad that if I hadn’t a good memory I couldn’t decipher most of the notes I’ve written over the years.

This might seem sort of cool. You know, the artist who writes in his own secret alphabet. Think of Leonardo. Sure. What an artist I am.

There’s only one problem with that. Leonardo wrote neatly. He used a code, sort of. But once you know about it, you can read his writings with ease.

Instead my notes are a mess and there’s no code I can use to decipher them. This means the moment I lose the ability to half read and half remember them I’ve lost them for good.

Now, we can liken a first draft to a large collection of notes. Of course, nowadays thanks to word processors first drafts are easy to read. But this doesn’t mean they are also easy to understand. Notes slovenly written can be sibylline, enigmatic, cryptic and even outright nonsensical.

That’s why in your first drafts you should certainly aim to write at a quick clip. But it should be such as to allow you to retain a decent form.

This means you should never push too hard only to reach, say, five hundred or two thousand words a day. Or whatever other goal.

In fact, revising two thousand words of supreme mess is much more time consuming than revising two thousand words you have written at a relatively slower pace, but retaining a good degree of control on your style.

3) Research a lot – to write the least you can about it

Research is important. Not because you have to impress your readers with your extensive knowledge–in fiction this ends up badly, with your readers bored to death and your heart broken.

Rather, research is important because having an understanding of what you’re writing about helps you immensely to keep the baloney out of your draft. Or to put it into your work in the only way it could work.

For example, maybe you don’t need to know that longbows were usually made of yew wood. But you might find it useful to know that a good archer was able to shoot an arrow every three seconds. As a result he couldn’t overcome by himself a gang of ten cutthroats pursuing him closely.

In the above example you don’t tell about your research. But you put it to good use.

4) Daily word count. Is it any good?

Setting a daily word count can be an effective way to keep you going, even when you don’t feel like it. As I said above, just don’t set such a high word count as to force you to write like you had a demon on your heels.

However you would most likely be better off if you avoided putting an arbitrary word count target on the work you are writing. In fact a book is finished when you feel it’s finished. It’s finished when you don’t have anything more to tell. Period. Besides, you’ll know it.

Instead, setting an arbitrary word count target can make you needlessly inflate your work to meet the goal. It can also force you to remove whole sections of your work. Sections that are perfectly fine.

Of course. When you are forced to reduce the number of words of a work you can always work hard to tell the whole story in a more efficient and streamlined manner. And that’s generally fine.

But on those occasions you begin to add material to a story only because you need to add ten thousand words to meet your target, chances are the additions will affect the overall quality of the work.

5) Gut feelings

Follow your instinct. At first it can be wrong more often than not. But if you’re diligent about studying and reading and writing you’ll learn from your mistakes. A lot. And you’ll find that slowly but assuredly your instinct will become more and more reliable. Rest assured. It’s not magic in action. It has more to do with Pavlov and his dogs.

The merry go around of editing

Some authors claim they never revise. I don’t know them personally, so I cannot say for sure whether they’re just boasting or have at their disposal editors who work on their, oh my! so clean first drafts.

But given that as a rule even very experienced writers need at least a couple of revisions, chances are that you too need to go through one or more passes of editing.

Just be clear about one thing. Beyond a certain point editing is like a see saw, you put in a certain word… only to take it out at a later stage. Again and again. So it’s important to realize that there is no such a thing as a perfect draft. It’s like the unicorn. It’s cool and awesome. But it isn’t real.

The perfect draft doesn’t exist for a simple reason. Because imperfection is embedded in ourselves and so we would find flaws even in perfection if we ever encountered it. Paradoxically, we would claim a work is perfect when it perfectly mimics our own mental setup and flaws.

That’s why we can reread a book and find it different every time. Because we grow and change. This is also why you can get to know a lot about a person if you know about her reading habits and the stars she has given to the books she has read.


At times you can think the mess you’ve come up with requires to be nuked. This kind of action is instinctive and has a natural appealing. That of catharsis. It can also inject us with a boost of regenerative energy and make us rise from the ashes like a phoenix.

But the truth is that if you have twenty thousand words you want to dump you’d better file them away in a folder appositely set up for storing that kind of literary drivel.

In fact, even the purplest prose can be salvaged and reused for some other work. Not necessarily preserving the actual wording, of course. But the ideas behind the word may prove useful. The beats of the story. The organization of the scene. Those too are all aspects you can draw on.

So, name your folder with the most satisfying name you can think of in term of cathartic effect–The Shitter. Last Stop Madness. Purple Purrs. Whatever. But don’t even nuke your works.

Pictures: kellepics – pixundfertig –deedster – ractapopuilus – Leunert

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