First draft. How bad can it be?

01 Feb











Every professional writer, every editor and every How-to book will tell you that the first draft of your story is garbage. That’s not the words they use but I’m trying to be G-rated here. Being the analytical sort, I’ve asked the question, “If it’s so bad, why do books ever get finished? If the first draft is always toilet water, why on Earth would the writer, editor, or publisher ever get beyond it and find a good story somewhere inside the garbage?” There are an awful lot of books and magazines out there with stories in them. Granted, not all of them are prize-winning quality. However, there are a ton that are much better than they are given credit for. So, somehow, the first draft makes it out of the cellar and onto the bookshelf.

My current project has been in the works for a long time. It’s been on again, off again with two short stories and numerous articles interspersed within the timeline. For the most part the internal editor has been kept at bay. I have gone back and re-read several sections to get back into the story line or to verify a detail or two. I have tried not to be judgmental of my writing or the story at this point. Then one evening last week, I sat down to write. I was feeling a little out of sorts and lacked focus bur I was determined to work through it and get a thousand words out before I turned on the idiot box (television). As I wrote, I kept saying to myself, “This is crap. This is crap. Oh, this is really crap!”

Finally, I hit my goal of a thousand words. I think I may have even finished the sentence before I closed the laptop. Maybe.

“Thank God! It’s all crap, but I got through it.” I set the laptop aside and proceeded to watch some mindless TV.

Two days later a friend asked me how the book was coming and the nightmare returned. “Oh, I’ve written some, but it’s all crap.”

She replied with the kicker, “Yeah, and…?”

“And, what?” I said.

She smiled and calmly replied, “You have always told me that the first draft is garbage, right?”

“Uh…yeah, I suppose so…but you don’t understand, this was really crap!”

She continued to smile but said nothing so I changed the subject.

That night I went back and looked at the “mess”. After reading over twice, it dawned on me that except for a minor change to the laws of physics and relocating my main character’s “dying” body, the scene actually works, for now. Not quite as bad as I had imagined. Hmm…

I thought of my friend and just shook my head.

So, there must be various levels to crap and as long as there is a desire to edit the work until it is no longer crap, there is hope. And eventually a story.

Note to self – Finish the book dummy and quit worrying about the quality. It’s going to be crap until you start editing it. Just write!




Posted by on February 1, 2016 in Thoughts on Writing


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7 responses to “First draft. How bad can it be?

  1. Pete Denton

    February 1, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    I think I needed to read this first thing on Saturday morning, which would have been difficult since you’ve only just published it!

    Some times it is just about writing, putting the words on to page (or screen) and your mind will have done some good and some bad. Editing is about expanding the good and removing the bad. But the words on the page is the starting point.

    Hope you have many more hours like that before the mindless TV stage. 🙂

    • Dennis Langley

      February 1, 2016 at 2:01 pm

      Thanks for the understanding and reinforcement. Just Write! 🙂

  2. Kate Johnston

    February 3, 2016 at 5:37 am

    I used to love writing the first draft — that was back in the days when I was like, 12 years old, and I didn’t really care about the outcome. I wrote solely because I loved it, and never imagined anyone would read it.

    When I decided I’d try to take writing on for real, then that “easy” first draft revealed itself to be the messiest part of writing. I hated it. I hated that I was writing crap because I became concerned it meant I was bad at it.

    After a while, I realized the first draft is supposed to suck. That’s why we revise! 🙂

    • Dennis Langley

      February 3, 2016 at 10:47 am

      For me the hard part is waiting until the book is finished so i can get to the revision part!

  3. Matthew Wright

    February 4, 2016 at 1:43 am

    You’re spot on! And of course the second, third etc drafts are also liable to be crap – but out of the mess inevitably emerges something wonderful, if enough time’s devoted to it. I’ve just been pursuing that very path myself: I foolishly thought it would be ‘easy’ to write a proposal for a book, which my publishers have said they’re keen to check out. I am still wrestling with it… Honestly, that RC aircraft hobby gets more and more appealing every day! 🙂 (As, indeed, does the lure of playing Kerbal Space Program ‘just for another minute or two’…)

  4. Sara Flower Kjeldsen

    February 8, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    This is great – and so true! I feel that way about my current work as I attempt to finish it at novel length. It’s exciting, but at the back of your mind, you worry it’s all garbage. But it isn’t. I actually find the editing process fun – like a special treat. Once the draft is done, you get to dig in and find the gold. 🙂

  5. Kourtney Heintz

    February 21, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    Dennis, it’s funny how we have to get it down and then fix it. If there’s nothing there, there’s nothing to fix. Drafting is exciting but scary. Sometimes we do something and it ripples back and forward and we don’t see it until we get to revisions. I’m in my editorial revisions and it feels like it’s finally coming together. 😉


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