I'm at a crossroads to figure out the better plan of action. I've heard you should always try to finish the rough draft, but...are there exceptions? I'm wondering if any readers here ran into this, especially in the early phases of writing, and how you dealt with this situation?

My particular situation was I wrote stuff, but kept it to myself, so I never really built upon my skills. I just stayed as a novice, writing novice level stuff for a number of years without growing.

Option 1.

Continue writing the rough draft that I started.

Pros: I have the ideas flowing in my head. I enjoy the characters, know them and their backstories. I really enjoy the process and what I can do to revise. I gain a lot of enjoyment writing the story and dealing with the characters. For me this is a huge pro to finishing the story.

Cons: The first reader (my friend) pointed out some key weaknesses that extend beyond what can be fixed in a 2nd draft. I'm striving to write something beyond my current writing skill level. (novice) I'm trying to convey lots of deep and complex character emotions, unsaid statements, dialogue that may on the surface be one thing, but the character means something else, which can't be handled in simple dialogue or descriptions, or handled with my novice skills. Conveying non verbal and internal thought process in non pov characters is a sticking point, that's foiling my story. The story itself essentially is a "very rough sketch" of what I am trying. If I go to finish it I'm writing more of the same vs learning something new. Because I have the plot sorted out, I'm also too easily tempted to over foreshadow sections.

Lacking experience, poorly conveying emotion, and also being tempted to over do the foreshadowing are bad cons. Especially the depicting emotions part. Essentially I'm doing the same thing that I've done before that hasn't been working. To be just good enough for my own mind won't cut it if I want to publish something out of it later.

Option 2:

Stop. Leave the rough draft unfinished. Try a new story, new characters, and a new world for a couple weeks or longer.

Suggested by the same friend: Don't finish the story right now. Stop working on it. Leave it as it is. Stop working on the characters or the series. Write something else for a few weeks and then come back to story 1 and rewrite from the problem area to the end. (essentially redraft the story from about page 8- where I left off and finish.)

Pros: Get my mind off trying to excuse poorly written sections by saying they are needed for whatever plot reason. I'm also not looking at something I've drafted before, or even imagined/ brainstormed/daydreamed before. The characters would be new, so I have nothing to go back to or reference from. Also find out where my writing skills really are. See if I can become a better writer vs. a better rewriter.

Cons: Feels more like work than play. Exercising, vs fun. My head is swimming with scenes I'd like to write from the characters and the world of Option 1. I want to get those ideas down.

Option 3:

Finish the rough draft. Write what comes to my head as its own story/scene. Write something new if I get stuck/ have no other ideas.

Something I thought of which combines the ideas of 1 and 2. Finish the draft, knowing it is a pre rough draft, A sketch of a rough draft. Instead of 2nd drafting or editing right away, try Option 2, but if a scene or idea involving characters from option 1 catches my fancy, write or draw that out as an isolated scene. (doesn't have to be included in story 1 or any of the ideas planned for the series. The idea is to just be an exercise writing to get the ideas in my head down and work on conveying emotion.

Pros: I feel like doing fun writing with my characters I can. I'm not detached from the world of option 1. I can still try option 2, but it doesn't feel as forced. I can also add in the idea of physically sketching scenes that give me issue. (Sketching a character is often how I come up with a character description.)

Cons: I still may lean towards the problems of option 1, where I'm learning to be better at editing and rewriting vs, make a great story, or simply a story that doesn't stink.

3 Answers 3


There is a fourth option you barely mentioned. Distillation.

You can try this on just a few pages, a chapter, whatever. If you think your writing is poor, do the whole story this way. First, make a backup of what you have written so you can refer to it later, in case you have any gems of description or metaphor you wish to save.

Distillation means reducing what you have written to meta-notes. About one note per 'block' of a single point. This could be even one paragraph, or one line of dialogue.

The note is about what you wrote, not the text of what you wrote. Try hard to make it why you wrote it. What were you aiming to accomplish? What did you want the reader to see or know? Why was it important?

If you have written computer code, think of the distillation as a comment on the code. The comment is "compute the alpha coefficient", or "Sort the records by name", the code is much more detailed and complex.

In distillation, do not gloss over too much. The point is to reveal to yourself the final details especially of dialogue. Yes, the conversation between Bill and Karen should show Bill is suicidal and Karen learns this; the plot point is "Karen learns Bill is suicidal".

Thus a change occurs in Karen, and a change may occur in Bill [he has told somebody something he was keeping to himself]. These changes are the reason this plot point exists.

Think of the distillation as putting the story into English Outline form. The plot point is "Karen learns Bill is suicidal", but beneath that heading are indented bullet points about exactly how she learned this.

[For background shown earlier in the story, I will make Karen and Bill former lovers, now friends, his contact with her is almost entirely these three running dates per week. For Bill, unknown to Karen, this is his deepest human contact, so the run is much more important to him than it is to Karen. Say they were lovers in college and haven't been for five years, they do have similar jobs and entertainment interests, etc. But the point of the story is not to get them back together.]

So say I decided to make this reveal in a conversation. It needed to be a private setting, so it is in the park, in the gazebo. And they are trapped there by rain.

Why rain? It is a simple-minded metaphor for his depression. So rain threatens, when it starts, this is Bill falling into suicidal depression, and guess what? He is trapped by the rain in the gazebo, alone with his only friend in the world, and the setting prompts him to reveal something new to her.

So here are the indented sub-points. Also written like plot points. No description or emotion, just the facts of what happened.

  • It looked like rain but they did not want to skip their jogging day, so they went anyway, thinking they could beat the rain.
  • On the way home, rain begins and they duck into the gazebo in the park to wait it out, they expect it will be over in fifteen minutes or so, and they have time today.
  • Nobody else is in the gazebo, and their conversation happens then.

So we have outlined a plausible scene that lets Karen learn Bill is suicidal.

But now we are at the point of actual writing description. Based on what was written, how does each of these bullet points play out? We do the same thing, like writing a book report.

For the first, "it looked like rain". Okay, why exactly?

  • Karen exits her bedroom with her running shoes in hand, Enthusiastic about running, since they had to skip their previous date.
  • Bill sits on her couch, his phone in hand. He tells her rain is coming.
  • Karen is irritated at the weather. She doesn't want to skip yet another running day.
  • Bill agrees, offers they can try to outrun it. Foreshadow his depression, he has invested an hour in getting ready to run and coming over and doesn't want to fail at even something as simple as this. If they don't run, he just goes home and cries. His agreement on not skipping is strong, and his offer is a scramble to save their run date, he'd willingly get soaked over skipping.
  • Bill shows her the weather radar on the phone, points out it is just one thin strand off the main storm, and couldn't last long even if they got caught.
  • Karen looks at the radar on his phone. She doesn't detect Bill's desperation, but she really does not want to skip two runs in a row, and she does like Bill and talking to him about what is going on in the world. So she agrees.
  • That is important to Bill, he feels a sense of relief. Something finally went right.
  • Karen gets some towels to put near her front door just in case they DO get wet (because we will need them later). She mentions something about if they do get wet; for example at least she won't have to drive home wet. May be able to foreshadow Bill's suicidal reveal with that comment, or her own reaction to it. They are off.

No dialogue! Just a description of dialogue and the emotions that motivate it.

No 'writing': This may be derived from writing, but what you make in a distillation is instructions for writing.

By breaking what you already wrote down this way, into logical steps, you can now use these instructions to write.

Of course with this distillation, you may also figure out what is wrong with the story as you have told it. If you cannot figure out WHY you wrote something or what purpose it serves in the larger story, it should probably be cut.

If your writing instructions do not show enough conflict, you should rewrite it: The conflict in my example is within Bill: He wants this run to happen, it is more important to him than Karen knows, and he doesn't feel like he can tell her why.

If you have a scene that does not seem to work based on these "writing instructions" then you can try to fix it, at this level.

I'd say let this sit for a few days (work on the following sections perhaps), but once the details of what you actually wrote have faded, try to follow your distillation and actually rewrite it.

A professional writer should not be afraid of discarding something that doesn't work and writing it over from scratch. Distillation is a half-way house between completely discarding it and trying to fix it line by line; it is a step back to see the shape of the forest instead of the trees.

And it lets you continue in your story, with the characters you like, and perform major surgery on it without just starting over from a blank page. You can keep the distillation that works. Refer back to the original if, in the rewrite, you have descriptions you like or word choices you like that still work.

Use your reference works to help identify the precise emotions driving the characters in each scene, and to help you better convey those emotions in the actual writing.

  • I like this bit of advise. I will try it. The friend brought up a real good question that kind of ruined the scene: If my MC's mentor knew his friend is going to attempt suicide, then why didn't he stop him? That and those that do commit suicide don't leave notes (or talk about it). But if my mc doesn't talk about it, then how do I get a 5 year old 1st person POV to be concerned enough to look for him? I do have some fantasy/supernatural elements at play, so I might lean on that more than the dialogue and see how that goes.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 13, 2017 at 17:42
  • Another thing the friend brought up was that I made too many "rules" about the narration. He suggested I jump POV from the 1st person narrator and get into the suicidal MC's mind to convey the thoughts and emotions.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 13, 2017 at 17:44

There are exceptions to every rule and every author is different. Keep on trying until you find what suits you best. In the end, nothing is useless. You'll learn tips from your unfinished draft that help you with your next novel. Just think of what went wrong with it and try to avoid doing the same.

I had the same problem and for myself, I opted to follow 'Option 2'. A new story and finish it until the end. Then, maybe someday, I'll go back to my 1st story but with a different plot. Otherwise, I'll just re-write the same crap.

When you have all these doubts and can't even find a way how to start to re-write it, just sit for a few minutes and think if it's worth wasting time on something you found so hard to continue. If you're feeling stuck all the time, I think it means the idea in your head isn't so clear as you thought it to be.

  • What it boiled down to was the plot was okay, the setup was okay. The characters were okay, and even the dialogue were okay, but none of it was conveying any emotion or the emotion(s) I wanted to convey. That is a bit more complicated than a rewrite. I have a hunch the problem will follow me even if I try Option 2.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 13, 2017 at 8:41
  • It's like that conversation between the soldier and the mentor character. Was a nice idea. Did it work? Yes and no. Did it read like close friends who've known each other for about 23 years. Nope. I may know my characters really well, but I'm not feeling their emotions (w/o telling cues either through dialogue or telling), or being able to draw from their backstory w/o telling and that is where the problem seems to lie. Even worse because I had no control over the emotion I wanted to convey, there were parts of the story that led the reader to feel the opposite emotion.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 13, 2017 at 8:44
  • What I learned is not to force it. I forced my female main character to fall in love the the male MC and in the end, had a very emotionless story. So with my new story, I'm letting the characters do as they please, sort of, and I'm enjoying writing it. The story has a better flow. Nov 13, 2017 at 8:49
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    Now that I think of it, maybe (at work when it is a "slow" day), I can try doing more people watching/ jotting down my observations. I just have to be discreet because they discourage any kind of drawing or writing at my retail job. Maybe that would help me w/ my characters?
    – BugFolk
    Nov 13, 2017 at 9:06
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    Looking at the Vivid Emotions book, one thing that I haven't tried but might want to try is just jotting down the intended emotion in the rough draft and then work to get the dialogue to fit. My thinking is in reverse (focus on dialogue and then sort the emotions), so maybe switching from my normal mode of thinking will help, not just in the story, but also in other areas.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 13, 2017 at 9:29

Never stop an existing writing process that is both flowing and enjoyable to start a new one out of a sense of obligation and duty. That's a good way to give yourself permanent writer's block. I also would always err on the side of finishing a current project before starting a new one, because the first way leads to finished projects, whereas the second way leads to just an infinity of half-started ones.

I understand your desire to both stretch your skills and reach an audience, but consider a) is this friend your right "first reader" and b) are you reaching out to him at the right stage in your writing? Having a critical voice, even if that person's judgement is excellent, enter a writing project too early can be very detrimental to creativity and voice. It sounds like this friend might be better deployed against a third draft than a first one.

Finally, what raises red flags to me here is your own estimation that this first draft can't be improved, that your only options are either to write more of the same or throw it all out and start over again from scratch. Neither path is likely to actually help you be a better writer. Even if what you are currently writing ends up just as notes to the final version, and none of it actually ends up on the final page, it's still a step on that journey.

  • I also wonder if writer's block is at play here for BugFolk - having personally had a rough time crossing the finish line on my first draft. I learned that the ending of a book is very different than the middle, and requires a different approach.
    – SFWriter
    Nov 13, 2017 at 15:00
  • The friend is a very good friend. He has my best interest. He's a musician, so he's also viewing it from that standpoint. To get better at playing, he plays a variety of stuff. I don't think his viewpoint is wrong. He's got a good point, but yeah it may be that I need to curb my excitement to revise and share as I write a rough draft. Save the excitement for later drafts. And yeah writer's block does seem to catch me right at the climax. Why the climax?
    – BugFolk
    Nov 13, 2017 at 17:33
  • It's like I read over my rough draft and yeah even without the friend, I can get critical of it and lose interest. Indeed I do have a number of half finished stories or even completed rough drafts that never made it to the 2nd draft.
    – BugFolk
    Nov 13, 2017 at 17:35
  • @BugFolk I'm not criticizing your friend. I've learned not to ask my sister to read drafts of my work, even though I respect her critical judgment, because it inevitably derails my writing. And it sounds to me like you're using your friend's advice as an excuse to give up on this project. Nov 13, 2017 at 17:50
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    @BugFolk My personal rule is never edit, rewrite or solicit criticism unless you are blocked in forward progress or otherwise done writing. You'll get much further reworking or editing prewritten material than trying to edit as you write. You just have to make peace with rewriting and discarding stuff later. Your critical voice is a necessity in the late stages of a project, but it is an enemy in any of the earlier stages. Nov 13, 2017 at 18:33

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