I’m not sure why so, so many of us writers go through this phase where we think editing is for chumps and if we sit down at our computers and write really, really carefully we can get the work completely correct at the end of the first try.
I know I was like that all through high school, and I’ve seen other writers comment to the same effect. Even though we’re the ones to put ourselves in that mindset, it can be really hard to get out of it. No matter how many sources are telling you otherwise – and it’s all of them, all the sources on writing are telling you otherwise – sometimes we still cling to this idea that we can knock out a perfect short story, essay, or even novel on the first try and only have to edit for spelling.
Look at me. I’m thirty or forty years old and I feel like I’m only now fully understanding the concept. I managed to let go of the idea of a ‘perfect first draft’ years ago, but I would still put a lot of effort into them. Lots of staring, backspacing, trying to get the words just right. It took me two years to get the first draft of my first novel done, and a lot of that was staring at a blinking cursor.
For this next novel I’m working on, I’ve finally decided to let go and write my first draft with the sort of wild abandon that could only be described with a gif of Animal from the Muppets banging on drums except someone edited in a keyboard in front of him. I would show that to you, but making that is beyond the scope of my photoshop abilities so you’re going to have to imagine it. I’ll give you a second.
Anyway, everyone always says your first draft should be shit but they never really go into how shit. Like, really give details. So I thought it might be helpful if I described all the ways I am completely fucking up as a writer to get this first draft down. Let’s go through it.
Cliches Out the Ass
Avoiding cliches is the number one rule in writing, but I have shoved that rule into a space-cannon and shot it directly into the sun. I’m using all the best cliches, and all the worst ones, and I’m using them with a smile on my face. Why? Because they are easy to write. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be called cliches. In writing this first draft, I am favoring quantity over quality. I just want as many words on paper as fast as I can, and if that means writing some stupid shit like he was a loose cannon or he was annoying as fuck then by God I’m going to do it. The good thing about the nature of cliches is that they’re so recognizable they’ll be easy to spot in editing. Harder to replace with something original, but that’s the whole point of editing. For now I’m just spitting words on the page. That reminds me:
Just, Well, I Mean
Everyone has those words that they rely on far too much. Words that have become so ingrained in the way you think and speak you don’t even notice until you go to proofread a thousand word short story you’ve written and realize it contains thirty instances of the word ‘just.’ Maybe your word isn’t ‘just,’ but you have a word. At least one word. Everyone does. And I’m telling you, in the first draft, write it all you want. If thinking of a way to eliminate your crutch words is going to slow you down then fuck it, write them all. It’s so easy to do a find and replace later.
Everyone Sounds the Same
This new novel I’m working on includes characters such as a Black man from Atlanta, an older Hispanic lady from Chicago, and a snotty Hollywood model. And yet, as of right now, they all sound like me. Same speech patterns, same starting and filler words, same sentence structure. Giving my characters their own voices is also something that happens in editing. I created an entire matrix for their speech, differentiating how they talk based off sentence length, pauses, accent, dialect, educational background, etc. Once I’m done with the first draft, and thus have a better idea of who these characters are, I’ll plug them into the matrix, tinker around until I have their speech patterns down, and do a whole edit devoted to getting them sounding like they should. For now, though, every single one of them sounds like a sarcastic white woman riddled with anxiety. And that’s okay.
As mentioned in another article, I did a fair amount of plotting before beginning my first draft, so I have a good idea of where everything is going. The way I plotted everything out, though, is pretty loose. I downloaded these Scene Worksheets and filled only the basics: a couple of sentences on what happens in the scene, who’s in it, and the ultimate point or final twist of the scene. Beyond that, I’m working in the details of the scene as I come to them. I want to have a general idea of where the story is going while still giving myself some breathing room.
This has led to a lot of inconsistencies in my characterization. A specific example: I was writing my female lead as self-possessed and headstrong, until I got to an important scene and realized it only worked if she actually had less self-esteem and was consistently nervous. Later, in another scene, she reveals a huge part of her past and there had been absolutely no lead up. Now, some people might think this is big enough to warrant editing right away. As far as I’m concerned, though, this is another item on the edit list. I think it’ll be much easier to rewrite the scenes so her character lines up with where she needs to be later than to write new scenes from scratch.
General Problems with Tone and Pacing
This is the biggest one and, honestly, the hardest to ignore. I keep getting halfway through a scene and thinking this isn’t saying enough or this is boring. And I’m right. It is boring. And it takes a lot of effort to not scrap everything I have and start again, or get discourage and delete everything, or try to start fixing things as I see the problems.
I’ve been pushing through, though, because I keep reminding myself: broad strokes. A painter doesn’t start with the finer details. They start with broad strokes, getting the general gist of the pile of fruit on the canvas before drawing the flies. That’s all I’m doing right now. Putting down amorphous blobs on paper that I can start to shape into something resembling apples and bananas in later edits. It’s okay if scenes in a first draft are boring. Or ramble on. Hell, I’ve written scenes I am almost one hundred percent sure I will edit out. But for now I will keep. Why?
Because I might change my mind. I’m still working. I might find a new theme, or plot twist, or character that makes that scene work. Even if I have to heavily modify it, it’ll be easier in editing if that scene is still there. Otherwise I’ll have to recreate it, and that will slow everything down. I’ve made a promise to myself: until I start editing, every crappy word stays. If I think I’ll need to change it, I put it in my editing list.
So, how shitty is my first draft? Real shitty. Fantastically shitty. You’d have to pry this manuscript out of my cold dead hands to be able to read it. But that doesn’t matter. The point of this draft isn’t for it to be good. It only needs to exist, so I can mold it into something people would actually want to read.
I’ll write something else when I’m in the editing process, and who knows? Maybe once I’m there I’ll be cursing my current self for leaving so much shit in the pile, and I’ll take back all these words I’ve written. Maybe not though, and that’s why leaving the shitpile as-is is worth it.