Essential writing skills: why a bad first draft is better than no first draft

There is an old adage – attributed to Will Shetterly – that a bad first draft is better than no first draft. Something of a cliché these days, though it also happens to be true.

Wright_Typewriter01For me the more interesting point is why it’s true. And that comes down to the nature of writing, which is all about an emotional journey – both for the author and the reader. That’s true of all writing, fiction and non-fiction.

The challenge authors face is translating that journey into the written word. Ideas, inevitably, emerge as concepts. They have a crystalline clarity and perfection in the mind that vanishes in the effort to write them down. Part of the problem is that we usually think in simultaneous concepts, whereas writing is a linear thread. The art of writing is the art of translating from one to the other, and it’s difficult. But there is also the fact that words, themselves, are imperfect tools for expressing the inexpressible. For beginning writers, for whom words are not yet their servants, the task is doubly hard.

All authors wrestle with the issue – it is this, more than any other – that has prompted such remarks as Hemingway’s declaration that we are all apprentices. It’s true.

What that means in practise is that the transition from ‘no draft’ to ‘first draft’ is often a struggle, because the written words –which make the concept concrete – inevitably never live up to the imagined perfection in the mind of the author. A large part of that is because our concepts-in-mind always come with the emotional sense, a feeling, attached to them – and this is what has to be translated, somehow, to the page.

It’s that act of translation that is the challenge. But once it has been expressed – once that concept has been pinned down in the form of words, however bad or imperfectly, a draft can then be worked on. That’s especially true in this age of word processors.

So that, in a nutshell, is why a bad first draft is always better than none. It’s a first expression of that translation of concept to words – a first effort to meet the challenge. It gives a writer something to work from, to ponder. Even to throw away, if required. But it’s better than nothing, because a concept in the mind, un-expressed, will always be perfect in ways that writing cannot be.

Do you get frustrated with that transition from concept to word?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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16 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: why a bad first draft is better than no first draft

  1. Yes, it can take a while to get used to the yawning gap between what you imagined in your head and what comes out in writing. That brilliant, powerful, emotionally devastating scene that you thought would rock the reader comes out as a bad soap opera sequence. That’s where the real writer digs in and edits the hell out of that scene until it works better. Get the first draft down in all its imperfection then you can shape the material to work together from beginning to end.

    It took me a while to let go of trying to write perfect first copy, and doing Nanowrimo forced me to let go of the time-sucking nitpicking. As my favourite inspirational cartoon says, “Just write the *%#@ story!”

  2. Frustrated, yes. But also kind of exhilarated — especially when something makes the transition from crystalline concept to written word…and is actually better after the conversion! 🙂

  3. Oh, always. I think this comes back to the “editing is writing” idea from your previous post – sometimes you just need to get through the idea as closely as you can, no matter how bad the writing is, and then you’ll have something to work with and shape into a coherent picture.

    1. You’re in good company. That problem of bettter ideas popping. In is what happened to Tolkien. He started off writing a simple sequel to The Hobbit and by the time the Better Ideas had played out, 600,000 words later… Then he had to rewrite it into a coherent whole. But what a result! Worth running with it and seeing where the ideas take you.

  4. The first draft for the third book in my Apostle John series, is sitting in a folder in my computer. You are correct about it being emotional… but this one is emotional in a different way. My husband, who was the first proof-reader and critic died last year. I looked at the draft once – and thought ‘No, not yet’>
    Well, yet is coming closer, so I am going to set to and go over that draft. Thank you for the encouragement.

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