Understanding Why First Drafts Are So Hard

Camp NaNoWriMo started at the beginning of this month and I’m currently headed to a writing retreat trying to complete the first draft of my work in progress. (For once, it’s going splendidly!)

As I write every day, I’m reminded how terrible first drafts are. And I’ve been thinking about the idea of perfect first drafts. We all loathe that feeling of hating our own writing, and we all seem to think that someone out there is doing it better. Is doing it perfectly.

But while I’ve been analyzing this whole first-draft process and the heartaches that come with it, God opened my eyes. And I couldn’t leave for my retreat without sharing my new revelations with you. I hope/pray they encourage you as much as they encouraged me.

Revelation #1: FIRST DRAFTS ARE GROSS

You know this.

I know this.

Even our moms who read them and are so proud of us know this.

So I guess it wasn’t much of a revelation, but I had to start with it. I’ve worked with over 100 authors on their novels through my editing business and many have gotten frustrated with the state of their first drafts. I still get frustrated with my first drafts and sink into “I’m-a-terrible-writer!” mode more often than I’d like to admit.

Sometimes it causes me to stop writing. To think about giving up. But then, thanks to Tosca Lee, I’ve been practicing mind games. 😛 Every time I’m tempted to hate a sentence (which is often) I chant to myself Tosca’s golden rule:

“Write as though no one is going to read it.”

So far, the chant is working.

 

Revelation #2: PERFECT FIRST DRAFTS = IMPOSSIBLE

Maybe you’re starting to wonder, “Um…Nadine, didn’t you say this was going to encourage me?” Stick with me.

You can’t write a perfect first draft, and here’s why:

A book is not its draft, just like a house is not its frame. (Tweet this) Let me explain:

You can’t do it all in one go. And even if you think you can…you can’t. Trying to write a perfect first draft is like trying to build a completed house from the ground up in one go. It’s not just impossible, it’s silly to think you should. An architect isn’t going to pour the foundation and then put the carpet on it and the dining room table on top of that before building the frame and putting insulation and dry wall and a roof.

You have to start with a frame. That’s crucial to the house, but that doesn’t make the house liveable.

Graphic rights: Vey Studio

Not an architect? Me neither. So let’s look at this from a writing perspective:

It’s the same with your novel. You create the framework in the first draft, then you keep filling it in (or cutting it down) through edits. Each area requires a different type of focus. Writing descriptions is a different mindset than developing characters. Developing characters is a different mindset than analyzing your story’s theme.

Why would you even want to try and build the perfect character, plot, scene, theme, and prose all in the first go? That’s way too much pressure.

Revelation #3: GROWTH

EVERYTHING needs to grow. Everything happens in stages. Plants start out as seeds. We start out as babies. Bookmarks start out as blank pieces of paper. Oreos start out as black batter. Even God–God–created the earth in stages. And it was perfect. 

It doesn’t mean that Day 1 of creation was more important than any other day. That light was more important than the animals. It just means that there were layers. It’s a testament to the thought put into the story.

Revelation #4: FIGURE OUT YOUR FOUNDATION

You have to start with your novel’s foundation. Each writer has their own preference. That’s why there are so many different types of novelists — plot-first novelists and character-first novelists and storyworld-first novelists and question-first novelists, etc. We all think better with a different foundation under our feet. So start with that. Maybe you can’t write a book until your plot is solid. Or maybe you have to have a character arc perfected before you can write. Whatever it is, start with whatever allows you to build from there.

Revelation #5: FIRST DRAFTS ARE SO HARD BECAUSE…

…we can see where it’s supposed to be. But we can’t deliver that the first time around. We can see the completed project in our mind, with every perfect twist, every perfect angle, every perfect development, but our minds are finite. They cannot know and think everything at one time. God created us to go through the process. And it’s hard to accept that we have to jog a marathon when we can see the finish line.

So as you write…

No matter where you’re at with your novel–first draft, third draft, fifth draft…remember that each draft necessary. It’s only when they come together that your novel is complete. (Tweet this.) And writing a perfect first draft makes about as much sense as expecting an apple seed to become a tree the moment it hits the soil.

Take your time. Give your novel time. And every time you’re tempted to hate a sentence, remind yourself that it’s not the finished product. That you’ll come back to it with a “polishing” mindset some time down the road.

And do as Tosca says: “Write as though no one is going to read it.”

Be free. Write. Grow.


 

What struggles do you face with your first drafts?

This can relate to anything! Novel-writing, photography, painting, dancing, etc.

Are you able to write your first draft without expecting it to be perfect? Share your tricks! 😛

 

 

 

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About Nadine Brandes

Nadine Brandes is an adventurer, fusing authentic faith with bold imagination. She never received her Hogwarts letter, but rest assured she’s no Muggle (and would have been in Ravenclaw House, thank you very much.) This Harry Potter super-nerd has been known to eat an entire package of Oreos (family size) by herself, and watches Fiddler on the Roof at least once a year. She writes about brave living, finding purpose, and other worlds soaked in imagination. Her dystopian trilogy (The Out of Time Series) challenged her to pursue shalom, which is now her favorite word (followed closely by bumbershoot.) When Nadine’s not taste-testing a new chai or editing fantasy novels, she and her knight-in-shining armor (nickname: “hubby”) are out pursuing adventures.

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24 Comments

  1. This is such a fantastic post! I’m writing an article about overcoming fear in writing, and one of the huge causes of fear that I hit on is these EXPECTATIONS we have for ourselves. Like, we expect our story to be perfect from the get-go! So this is so important. You really nailed it with the point that we can SEE our perfect story, but not write it yet. I think that’s huge with rapidly growing writers as well, because we can dream up those stories but haven’t reached that stage in our ability yet.

    • Yes! Your article sounds spot on! It’s so important that we learn our limits as authors and understand the PROCESS more than the end goal. <3 It will help us have the right mindset going into the story.

  2. Love this post! I don’t really have a problem with first drafts, it’s after I finish my first draft that the problems start. “The entire story is leading up to a climax that isn’t there!” “The beginning is necessary, but boring.” “How did I forget that plot thread from book 1?”
    I actually enjoy editing–it’s just the figuring out how to fix everything is the hardest for me, lol.

    • I hear you!
      As I write my first draft, I start keeping a list of the things I know need work or that I need to follow through with. (Like “Don’t forget this character died ten chapters back. So he can’t re-appear here….”) 😛

      Also, that’s what editors are for! 😉

  3. I need to print this and tape it to the wall across from where I write. Love the encouragement

  4. What a great post, Nadine! It’s a wonderful reminder as I start a new project during Camp NaNoWriMo–which, I’m sad to say, is not moving along quite as slendidly as yours! For me, the hardest part about beginning a new first draft is figuring out the starting point. Finding the “perfect” opening scene–and especially the opening few lines–is paralyzing!

    • Oh yes. The start takes the longest for me, too. Thankfully I started NaNo with the first three chapters written (the product of November’s Nano. Yes, it took me the whole month to get those three chapters.) So it’s been able to go much smoother with the body of the story. I’m like you in that, if the intro doesn’t feel right, I can’t move on.

      Praying for you! How’s it been going so far?

  5. Thanks Nadine I need this. I am currently hating this draft of my novel which is kinda a first but also kinda a second because I am completely re writing everything and have changed the story so much, and re reading things I wrote a few years ago when I started the story….aaggggg horrible.

    • Aww, that process can be so daunting and discouraging! Keep plugging away, my friend. Seeing your own weak writing is just a sign that you are growing. And that now you can recognize weaker writing! 🙂

  6. Pirate King (Lizzie)

    I’m working on five wips right now. One I’m glad to say is going /so/ well, like, I’m proud of a first draft *cries* but anther one I’ve gone through fifty mc’s :/ a third (my fave) is a mess, I keep forgetting deaths and character additions parts of chapter eight and nine are missing, so this is amazing and helped me see so much better. Also a blessing to my dystopian which had this random scene with a lion on the wall that hid a passage way. ?
    <3 I'm so glad your kind enough to share the struggles and not bask in the public filter that so many people hide in.

    • Oh goodness! How do you juggle it all?! I’m impressed! But I can see how that would be really difficult. Maybe start keeping a list of all the characters and plot threads in a separate document to keep them straight? 😉

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post! <3 It's nice to know we're not the only ones who struggle with first drafts!

  7. This was the most encouraging blog post I’ve read in a while. Thank you for this. Extremely valuable information and advice. One thing I read somewhere long, long ago, that literally helped me to actually finish my first manuscript was that you should write out your first draft straight through without editing. If you stop to edit constantly, you will be come discouraged, and indeed that was the story of my writing life until about 2010. Once I figured out that you have to simply finish your first draft first, I wrote 4 completed books (drafts not published) in the span of 5 years. I love, love, love the building a house analogy. Thank you again.

    • Oh I’m so glad!
      Yes, I’ve received that advice–write straight through without editing–and it can be so freeing! I still cheat a bit, but I chant that to myself as I write (along with Tosca’s advice) to get myself through. 😉

  8. This post came at the right time!💙💙💙I’m struggling to write a first draft (tho it’s also a complete rewrite of a 7-year-old book) and I admit I struggle with wanting to make every word perfect as I go.
    If the red line appears due to a misspelled word, I have to go back and fix it. I’m OCD that way.
    But this article is encouraging me to sit down and just GET that 1st draft written.
    I’ve already reread this…and I will again when I get discouraged. 💙💙💙

  9. Emileigh Latham

    Oh my gosh! I so needed to hear, er, read this! Thank you so much for sharing this because WOW! Amazing!

  10. Loved this, Nadine! And I find it incredibly ironic that you did a post on why first drafts are hard, and I did a post on why they’re my favorite! 😀 But I agree that, even if I probably like them best, first drafts are sometimes IMPOSSIBLE. I love the “write like no one is going to read it” quote that you shared – I’ll have to remember that 😉 .

  11. The toughest part of the first draft for me is dealing with Dyslexia.
    Knowing I will need to seriously add depth, delete typos, question why I constructed the sentence backwards, etc. Editing is so daunting.
    But I know it means more opportunities to get my story to the fullest it needs to be. Like an onion, each editing process, I add layers to the core idea and it either, brings people to tears or invigorates their senses, lol!
    Great post 😀

    • That must be so hard! I can’t imagine the daily hurdles you have to jump. Have you ever tried dictating your story? Thomas Locke dictates his stories and then sends them to an assistant to type up. It frees him to focus on the story and not have to worry about the physical words on paper part. Just a thought. 🙂

  12. I struggle with editing as I go instead of waiting to edit later. Because I am a perfectionist, I have yet to become comfortable with just putting it on paper without self editing.

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