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I've heard from a lot of people - both on this site and elsewhere - that your first draft will be terrible. Some even say that you will barely use any of it.

This has me wondering: What about the first draft is so bad?

Is it that the wording will be bad? The story won't convey the message or sound the way you want it to? Or is it that the characters won't be fleshed out enough? Maybe that the plot won't be developed, or won't be focused enough, causing it to ramble?

What exactly is bad about the first draft?

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    All of the above and then some. This is why I never bother with the first draft and start with the second one. – Lew Apr 14 '17 at 14:51
  • "This is why I never bother with the first draft and start with the second one." What are you saying here? Are you claiming that you write your novels perfectly the first time? – user394536 Jul 16 '18 at 2:36
  • "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." – papidave Oct 26 '18 at 14:16
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There is a lamentable process by which averages become aphorisms. That is, we see a common pattern and turn it into an absolute rule. Adverbs are often used badly, so don't use adverbs at all. Writers often tell when they should show, so always show, never tell. This is, essentially, lazy thinking, a desire to rule a complex world with simple rules.

Most first drafts suck. This is hardly surprising. A novel is one of the most complex constructs in all of art, so it is hard to get it right the first time. There are many ways for a book to be bad, and a first draft may display any of them. If an author cannot hold all the threads of art and craft in their heads as they write, and most can't, then something will be bad about the first draft. But not necessarily one thing in particular. It all depends on which thread the writer let drop.

Most crafts are not like this. A good cook gets most dishes right the first time. Many crafts practice simple motions over and over until they are performed reliably and automatically. But writing is too complex for most writers to do this. There are certainly many elements of craft you can hone and perhaps even perfect over time but to reduce a world and its people and it hopes, loves, and intrigues to a single sequence of words sustained over three of four hundred pages, is beyond the capability of most mortals, and so most books are the product of progressive refinement.

Does this mean that all first drafts necessarily and automatically suck? Not at all. An experienced and gifted storyteller may well turn out an excellent first draft. That does not necessarily mean flawless or incapable of improvement, but it could certainly be excellent. (If Go Set a Watchman is indeed an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is also an excellent novel in its own right.)

The danger of this doctrine is that it leads people to advise, essentially, that you should rush through your first draft thoughtlessly, as if it were an unpleasant chore, and as if no opportunity to create quality work existed until after the first draft is complete. This is bollocks. We should strive to do the best work we can at all times. But the first draft is special. It is the last time we will have a blank slate, the chance to map out the pure lines of story unencumbered by an accumulation of prose or of scenes we may struggle to part with. The first draft is the foundation on which all will be built. It should be as good as we can possibly make it.

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  • I like your answer, and how you show the difference between common patterns and assumed fact. It's a great answer. It just... doesn't answer the question. You say most first drafts suck. How so? In what areas? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Apr 14 '17 at 15:01
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    It does answer the question. It does not answer the related question of in what ways do first draftstypically suck. To which I suspect that the answer is in every way imaginable. I doubt one fault predominates over all others. But I am not sure who sees enough first drafts to answer from experience. Most readers see later drafts. – user16226 Apr 14 '17 at 15:10
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    @ThomasMyron It does indeed answer the question in general. If you are asking what is wrong with a particular first draft, you should refer us to that particular first draft. If you have concerns about the quality of your own work, there are ways to address that as well. Otherwise, your question shifts into the realm of "how to write well from the start, so you don't have to revise". – Lew Apr 14 '17 at 17:16
  • @Lew Maybe it's just me, but I'm not seeing how this answers the question of 'what about first drafts is bad?' It seems to be generally accepted that most first drafts are bad. The question simply asks in what way. Mark's answer, while excellent, doesn't shed any light on that. It stresses that not all first drafts are bad, and that we should try to make the first draft as good as possible instead of rushing through it. That doesn't explain in what way most first drafts are bad. Unless I'm missing something here. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Apr 14 '17 at 17:21
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    @ThomasMyron Before your edit is sounded like you were asking why first drafts are categorically bad, which they are not. There are many ways for a book to be bad, and a first draft may display any of them. If an author cannot hold all the threads of art and craft in their heads as they write, and most can't, then something will be bad about the first draft. But not necessarily one thing in particular. It all depends on which thread the writer let drop. Most crafts are not like this. A good cook gets most dishes right first time. But writing is too complex for most writers to do this. – user16226 Apr 14 '17 at 17:32
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First drafts are bad because a form has yet to emerge until they are actually words on a page. By form, I am referring to both narrative and phrasing.

People differ about whether they want to spill a lot out on first drafts or not. I try to make first drafts good and readable -- although at times I have written crappy first drafts for the sake of momentum. Often when doing first drafts I have yet to discover literary effects I wish to use or transitions from one scene to another.

On second draft, you have a better sense of form; it often is obvious which components you can delete. I am not merely referring to verbal compression; often on second draft you can see which paragraph or groups of paragraphs don't need to be there.

On 2nd or 3rd draft you can start strengthening sentences and paragraphs. The "strengthening" phase of the writing is the most challenging... and rewarding.

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It's A Colloquialism Among Writers

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird (amazon link), has an entire section named, Shi**y First Drafts.

That's where the idea originally got traction.

The better way to state this might be:

Writers Must Edit

or Maybe consider what Truman Capote said when referring to Jack Kerouac's writing:

"That's not writing, that's typing"

Don't type, write!

Amateur writers believe that writing is simply sitting down and writing. It is. For the first draft.

However, real writing for public consumption is : Rewriting

There. We created another good aphorism for writers:

Real Writing Is ReWriting

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"That's not writing, that's typing." Indeed.

I would not say that a first draft is necessarily bad. It likely requires some editing, but that might still make it hard to distinguish from the original.

Alas, especially in our era, it is too easy to sit down and type. Unlike Mr. Kerouac, we do not even have to carry a typewriter around; we can do it with our thumbs on a handheld device, or even record our spoken stream of consciousness for later transcription. Software will correct our spelling, but not our skills.

Thus, our "first draft" may really be what software folks call an "alpha" pre-release. Then, it may be poorly planned, uncertain in its POV, or overly moralistic.

Famous line from Heart of Darkness: "He had something to say. He said it."

It it easy to type, without having anything to say.

For comparison: Search for images of the original scores of famous classical music works, as handwritten by their composers (Beethoven, etc.) Compare to the same scores, after publication.

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Before talking about the problems of a first draft, it's important to ask a couple of other questions.

  1. What is a first draft?

The answer is simple: the first written version of your novel.

  1. What does it look like?

That'll depend from writer to writer. If you first outline extensively and prepare settings and characters carefully, the first draft will probably be very close to the final work.

If you start writing and discover where the story leads step by step, it's very likely the characters (and the very events) will change a lot through the novel and, therefore, the first draft may look very different from the final work.

You may even start out with a fairly outlined idea and, half-way, decide you want to go somewhere else and give up that previously outlining (some people will advise to go back and rewrite; others will tell you to carry on and fix the beginning after you've reached the ending).

Some people will go as far as to advise that you write all the events as fast as possible (write, write, write, and don't stop to think). This type of first draft sounds to me very bare-bone and akin to an outline in prose.

Finally, we may ask...
3. What about the first draft is so bad?

Again, it will depend on what type of first draft you have in your hands.

If there was extensive outlining, it's probably safe to say you won't need to rewrite the entire thing as characters, events and settings will probably be set in stone.

If you discovered your characters and events as you wrote, you'll at least have to go back and make sure everything is coherent (so that, for example, one character didn't start out as a red-head and turned out to have auburn hair half-way).

If you changed your mind about what you're writing half-way and carried on, you'll need to go back and really remake that first draft.

If you write without thinking, then you'll need to go back and flesh out pretty much everything.


I believe that the more planned out in advance the novel is, the fewer problems you'll have with your first draft. In this case, it is my belief the problems will be with small incoherences and mostly style. (Unless, of course, the novel was poorly planned and the author couldn't choose, or focus on, the right events to advance the story and the characters in a tight, appropriate fashion.)

Discovering as you write, or changing your mind half-way, will get you more problems of coherence, whether it is with timelines (eg. one character being in London in the morning and in LA in the afternoon), characters (eg. Johnny is shy half of the novel and a shameless social butterfly the other half), settings (eg. Annie's bedroom has a view to the sea but is set six miles from the beach), plot holes of all types, or simply a lack of focus on a theme.

If you write without thinking, the problems I've mentioned in the previous paragraph become even stronger. Add to that that you probably had no time to flesh out rounded characters and may even have left the setting as a random American city and no idea which month it's set in, which means you'll have to choose a city and timeframe. Then, having done so, you will need to insert references to the appropriate climate (eg. if it's set in Anchorage, Alaska in December and you don't mention snow, there's something seriously wrong).

Then there is the personal tendency of the writer: a verbose writer will write too much, whether we're talking description, dialogues, or unnecessary events; a 'to-the-point' writer will write too little, whether it's because there'll be no description, the characters don't require back story or location names and months are considered superfluous for the crux of the story. For these writers, the first draft will be the place to let themselves go before going back and softening their instinctive approach.


On a personal note, I write in a fashion as I've never seen mentioned in most forums and blogs I visit. First of all, I don't 'first draft' my entire novel. I write the first few chapters a few times (or over and over, if need be) until I find the right tone (style, narration, etc) to fit the story and the characters.

Then I develop the main events, timeline them, research the settings, understand the motivations. At this time, I'll write random scenes that further flesh out the characters and may or may not be used in the novel.

Finally, I go back to that first chapter and start writing. I'll carefully search for the right words, the right style, the right rhetoric, the right everything- Every time I finish a chapter, I go back and re-read everything (in the beginning) or the last few chapters (once I get over half-way the novel) to make sure the tone is just right and everything is still tight and 'perfect'. If I start getting fed up, the chapter needs an over-haul. If something is wrong, it'll become annoyingly obvious after the third or fourth re-reading and I'll be able to fix the problem.

Some chapters do work like a first draft and will need a more or less deep revision; others will come out nearly perfect at the first try (barring some words that need to be swapped with a synonym or some wordings that need perfecting).

My advance is slow but steady and confident.

Why do I refer my personal 'draft quirks'? Because I want to reinforce that it depends. Whether a first draft is great or terrible; whether the problem is character development, fleshing a setting (too much or too little) or catastrofic plot holes; whether there is a proper novel draft or consecutive chapter drafts - what is wrong will always depend on each individual draft rather than a generalisation.

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The first draft is generally bad because your brain fills in the gaps that are left by the words you have written. You don't see what's missing because your brain, which already knows all the stuff you left out, fills it in.

This is why telling instead of showing is much more satisfactory to the person doing the writing and so much more unsatisfactory for everyone else.

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The unpublished short stories I read are hardly first drafts, but a common problem is that there's too much in the pages that wanders away from the story. These pieces need "tightening up" so their story remains the focus.

These scenes need to be rewritten or just deleted. Often, the unnecessary stuff happens at the beginning of the story. A lot of these would be better if the first two pages were lost. (I recently read one that began with the main character's birth.)

This unnecessary stuff was, it seems, necessary in those early drafts as the writer figures things out. But that stuff needs to be removed or integrated in revision. (Your readers will help identify this stuff.)

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