Why Your First Draft Should Suck (and That’s a Good Thing!)

Superhero

I’m a couple chapters in to my newest work-in-progress, and it kinda sucks.

But that’s okay, in fact, that’s great!

Let me explain.

Of the many pieces of advice often handed out to new writers, two are in my head at the moment. The first is “It’s okay to suck.”, and the second is “The first draft is the writer telling themselves the story”. These two combine nicely to explain my feelings about the story I’m working on, and how I feel differently about it than the first draft for any story I’ve written in the past.

Let’s break those two statements down, and then talk about how they work in harmony.

It’s okay to suck,” which I first heard said by Mur Lafferty, is advice to writers who find themselves paralyzed by the quality of their writing. Now, she doesn’t mean it’s okay to publish a work that sucks, that would be a huge mistake. No, what she means is that when you’re writing your first draft of your story, some parts of it might be really bad, but that’s okay. You shouldn’t let your desire to produce a perfect work of art keep you from writing, because rough drafts are exactly that- rough. They have parts that don’t work and will later be replaced and thrown out. So, if the part you’re working on now sucks, that’s okay, because that’s just a placeholder for something really cool you’ll come up with later on during editing and revisions.

This leads us to “The first draft is the writer telling themselves the story,” which I’ve heard credited to Terry Pratchett (and others). This piece of advice is a little trickier to understand, but in essence he’s saying that the first draft isn’t the story that the world will see, but a draft only for the writer themselves. It’s a version of the story that exists only for you to understand and explore your story and characters, and is not meant to entertain anyone but you.

So, what do we get if we combine these two?

We get freedom.

The first draft is a playground in which you can suck as hard and fast as you want to, and not be afraid because nobody else on Earth is going to see it. You can (and will) change anything and everything later, so who cares what parts are placeholders and what parts will get erased? This is you, the writer, mucking around and seeing what kind of story you can put together for your own fun and pleasure. Some bits will rock, other bits will be less-than-awesome, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s all for you, and you alone.

Stephen King, in On Writing, suggests that you never let anyone see your first draft of a story, no matter how tempting it might be. I think he’s right! Because if you at any moment feel that another person will see this draft, you will start to edit and censor yourself as you’re writing, which completely defeats the purpose of this rough first draft. Get it out onto the screen (or paper, Luddite!) and then worry about making it presentable to the world during revisions. Right now, it’s a mud castle like you made when you were a kid, and you get to play in it and shape it how you want- so don’t hold back.

If you do, you’ll find writers block and procrastination wait to tie you up and hold your creativity for ransom- don’t let them!

So, it’s okay that the stuff I’m working on now sucks.

It’s laying the groundwork for the writing that comes later.

And that, will be glorious!

Rob

 

Picture Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/2303174468/ 

6 thoughts on “Why Your First Draft Should Suck (and That’s a Good Thing!)

  1. Great post. I made the mistake of sharing bits of my first draft of a new novel with my writing group yesterday. Of course they were less than encouraging because I am still telling myself the story and feeling my way through a loosely constructed plot. Too much advice, too soon–from now on I’ll just write away and see if I can carve out the bad from the good later. Thanks for your post. I’ll have to read King
    again for moral support.

    • Yes, it’s hard to hold back when you have a wonderful new project you’re in love with, isn’t it? But, you have to be strong for the sake of the story and your own creative freedom! We want the joy of people reading our labour of love, but if we do it too soon we’re sabotaging ourselves from the get-go. :-/

      Keep at it, Chris!

      Rob

  2. Hm,m,m – sadly, don’t think this would work for me. Oh my first draft may suck big time but I try to revise and tighten as I go. If I ended up with a big mess that needed extensive rewrites I’d probably abandon it. But that’s just me.

    • Hi Linnea,

      Hey, the amount of suckage you can tolerate is totally a personal choice. I just find major revisions slow me down, so I try to avoid them as I go and make notes instead for the next pass through. If you’ve got a system that works, though- stick with it! 🙂

      Rob

  3. > If I ended up with a big mess that needed extensive rewrites I’d probably abandon it

    Something folks don’t consider is that you can REALLY only critique a story after you see where it goes. Or rather, where it’s SUPPOSED to go. When you hammer through beginning to end you get a framework, no matter how shaky. It let’s you see the big picture, and makes it easier to tweak things so’s they end up where they end up. Was it Heinlein that said “always finish what you start?” I think this is what he meant. When doing your first run it doesn’t hurt to slap anything in…. you can fix it later and sometimes the back of your head will sneak good stuff in.

    >or paper, Luddite

    “Smash the Computer! PURGE is your friend!”

    Don C.

    • Yep, that was Heinlein alright. Here’s author Robert J. Sawyer’s interpretation, which jibes with yours, Don…

      Rule Two: Finish What You Start

      You cannot learn how to write without seeing a piece through to its conclusion. Yes, the first few pages you churn out might be weak, and you may be tempted to toss them out. Don’t. Press on until you’re done. Once you have an overall draft, with a beginning, middle, and end, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to see what works and what doesn’t. And you’ll never master such things as plot, suspense, or character growth unless you actually construct an entire piece.

      On a related point: if you belong to a writers’ workshop, don’t let people critique your novel a chapter at a time. No one can properly judge a book by a piece lifted out of it at random, and you’ll end up with all sorts of pointless advice: “This part seems irrelevant.” “Well, no, actually, it’s very important a hundred pages from now . . .”

      Which is exactly my point, as well. Just churn that sucker out, and then come back and review and revise it later. New ideas will come once you see the whole thing together, and no time writing is wasted because you are always learning and improving your skills while doing it!

      Rob

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