Why a bad first draft is better than no first draft

First drafts, reputedly, are always bad.  Ernest Hemingway, reputedly, summed it up with one pithy phrase:  ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...
Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

His own classic style – clarity, sparseness and an absolute mastery of words – came from multiple rewrites. He re-wrote the wonderful Farewell to Arms at least five times, and by his own account re-cast the first part fifty times.

The National Novel Writing Month contest – held every November – intentionally urges people to write a ‘first draft’. And it’s going to be bad – meaning, it won’t capture the clarity of idea that the writer has in their head. But that doesn’t mean getting disheartened – on the contrary, it means authors should plough on to the end. Then – like Hemingway – they’ll have words that can be worked up into something really good.

But that doesn’t mean letting all the rules go just to get the word-count out. Fundamentals such as structure are still important. I’ve posted already on ways of preparing that bad first draft so it’s properly structured – so it has the right foundations. The words may not be right, but the basic form will be. And it’s also essential to make that ‘bad first draft’ as good as you can make it. Call it a ‘stretch goal’.

The trick to getting the right balance between ‘quick first draft’ and ‘quality’ is to understand how editing works. There’s a notion – certainly among beginning authors – that ‘writing’ is the part where you’re assembling the words for the first time, and ‘editing’ is a quick polish afterwards, whereupon the work’s ready to publish. I’ve actually seen tweets from authors announcing they’ve ‘finished’ their book and after a quick edit, it’s going to be published in a week or so. Actually, wrong. A first draft manuscript is way, way off being submitted to an agent or publisher, still less self-pubbed. Author editing – which actually means ‘re-writing’ – is as much work as the original composition, and it’s an essential part of the whole writing process.

What this means is that – with planning – it’s possible to produce a well-structured first draft, one that has the fundamentals right – but where the wording might be totally changed after it’s been ‘finished’. This is what Hemingway was getting at with his comments about re-writing. And the power of modern computing makes it a lot easier for us to re-write than it was for him – where everything had to be hard-typed and over-written in pen.

Click to buy
Click to buy

If you want to know more about ways to write – methods and techniques for getting up to speed and writing that book fast – check out my short quick-start manual How to get writing… fast. Available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


3 thoughts on “Why a bad first draft is better than no first draft

  1. Thank you for that valuable and helpful posting Matthew. Much appreciated. Kind regards Ron T.

  2. Just picked up a copy of your book. I know I will learn some valuable tips from you, Matthew! I look forward to reading it. Will review too.

    1. Cool! Thank you. ☺ Hope the tips and hints are useful. It’s a brief general guide which summarises a method I developed for writing that works for me, so doesnt cover everything but there will be sequels detailing other specifics if this one sells well enough.

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