The two types of first draft

“The first draft of anything is shit.” So said Ernest Hemingway, and I’m sure many of us have had the disheartening experience of trying to get an idea onto paper and just not nailing it. But at other times the opposite can be true and the first draft can flow so beautifully that you almost suspect it was too easy. This type of first draft isn’t talked about nearly as often.

Here’s what I think about the two types of first draft, and how they need to be handled.

The bad first draft

This is what Hemingway was talking about. In fact, this is what most people talk about when they talk about first drafts. You’re a writer faced with an empty page and you just have to fill it, no matter what comes out, no matter how bad it is, you must just write.

For many people, it is the fear of the bad first draft that prevents them from writing altogether. We hear it often: to be successful you must be afraid to fail. So many people tell us that our first draft will be dreadful, it’ll make us cringe, you’ll never want any eyes but yours to see it. This can be enough to put a person off writing entirely, because it’s easier to keep that perfect idea in your head and never see it mangled when you try to let it out.

How to handle it

You simply can’t write without getting the bad first draft out of the way. Don’t worry, nobody but you need ever see it and you can even get rid of it later if you want to (but not too hastily, you never know when you might need to look back at it). Dump all your ideas onto the page at once, good and bad, and then sift through them later for the good bits, the stuff you can keep, the things you wrote without thinking that could take your work to wonderfully unexpected places. Whatever you do, don’t shy away. Just grit your teeth and write. The really hard work comes later.

The good first draft

This type of first draft lines up more closely with the (stereotypical) idea of the writer as a conduit for inspiration. Some mysterious Muse taps you on the shoulder and the words flow forth from your fingers, almost as if you weren’t writing them at all. OK, that may be an exaggeration, but sometimes an idea does strike and you manage to get it down on paper in that first flush of inspiration. Then when you read it back later you think, ‘Damn, that’s pretty good’.

So, half the work is already done? Not so. The good first draft can be just as problematic as the bad one, perhaps even more so, because soon you’re going to have to read it with a critical eye or give it to someone else to read. And there will be problems with it, big ones that need fixing. It’s not so hard to accept the flaws in your work when you know you’ve written a bad first draft, but realising that a good one may not be as good as you first thought is hard. Even worse, editing and rewriting a good first draft can feel like butchering it.

How to handle it

Don’t be disheartened. Just because you have started to notice cracks in veneer of your first draft does not mean that the idea isn’t worth pursuing. When you edit, you’re doing all the necessary work that you would do to a bad first draft, it just feels worse because you were so swept up by inspiration when your first wrote it. It can be hard to accept that your ‘perfect’ first draft isn’t perfect after all, but once you do you can stop fretting and get on with the work. Nobody nails a piece of writing the first time round (not even Hemingway), so embrace that glorious feeling of inspired genius when it happens to you and let it go when the time comes. It’s the ideas that fire you up, and the desire to fully realise them that keeps you working afterwards.

Have you experienced good and bad first drafts? Are there any more types of first draft I’ve missed? Comment and let me know!

If you need a critical eye to give you feedback on your manuscript, check out my manuscript reviewing service.

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