Why your first draft isn’t as bad as you think it is

Wastepaper bin with screwed up pieces of paper

Here’s a scenario that every author (and editor) can recognise at some point.

You’ve written your first draft, and are sitting in front of your computer.

The problem is, your internal monologue is having kittens:

It’s terrible, isn’t it.
How much work am I going to have to do to pull this into shape?

You decide to contact an editor for support. Your email hits their inbox, they open it up, look through your sample and smile. Not to themselves because they think your writing is the worst thing they’ve ever seen in the history of literature, and are wondering how on earth to break the bad news.

They’re smiling because they understand that anxiety can be a very real part of the writing process. They have an initial picture of what can be done, and can reassure you it’ll be OK.

Come on, all first drafts are bad aren’t they?
Well, I’d argue no, they aren’t.

It’s a common trope in writing circles that a first draft of anything is naturally going to be dreadful. It’s been bashed out, possibly a ‘pantser’ if fiction (meaning written as you go without a plot map, character arcs or overall plan); or maybe a collection of sections or content needing organisation or structure, if non-fiction.

Classing the condition of any new creative endeavour in a poor light is neither axiomatic nor productive.

Here’s why:

  • It places you as the author at a disadvantage, because you’re operating from a place that’s ‘bad’ to one that’s ‘good’.
  • It automatically assumes that what you’ve done is awful, when it probably isn’t.
  • It places extra pressure on you to come back from that negative place and deliver.

Whenever an author says this about their first draft – that it’s ‘rubbish’ – I refuse to facilitate that. Every script has its own strengths, and even though some editors do employ the term ‘weaknesses’ when they’re discussing a writer’s text, I decline to collude with that term too.

I prefer to say: ‘a manuscript’s strengths, and some areas which might perhaps benefit from review or adjustment’.

Because that is the truth, not diplomatic whitewash.

My take? A first draft is what it is – no more, no less. We’re getting our thoughts out of our head, and that isn’t necessarily going to be pristine or fully formed.

It doesn’t mean the result is ‘bad’.

When we enter into the publishing journey, our first draft is the ground zero, the foundation from which we make a start.

For non-fiction, the purpose of that draft is just to get the information down – and however you choose to do that as an author is OK. Your creative process matters: no one – including you – should slate it!

Having said that: before you start writing non-fiction, it is a good idea to outline your book first, so you have at least a basic map from which to construct, order and expand on the topics you want to include.

The real graft is getting that draft done, so there is something to work with, then refining it, ideally with professional input from an editor – whether that’s structure, content or something else. That will be individual to you as a writer, your output and intention for it, never a one-size-fits-all solution.

Writing is a process, and it can be a long one. Often, we think as we go: new ideas, different angles and fresh content can come to us as we’re redrafting. They can change, be revised or even removed altogether.

It takes time to reach the product that finally goes out to readers.

And that’s perfectly OK.

Slaying the monster
The thing is, authors can be beset by all kinds of anxieties about their writing, from impostor syndrome and perfectionism to creative block and worry about self-expression and clarity.

Heaping scorn on top of that is hardly helpful!

The fact is, by writing a book you are performing a courageous act.

Let’s take a moment to unpack that.

Not everyone has the guts to put themselves out there in print. For every author who has been (self-)published, there are a legion of ‘aspiring authors’ behind them who haven’t had the mettle to step up and share their creative work, expertise or knowledge, for fear of exposure to critique – from an editor, their peers or the wider public.

What motivates you as a non-fiction author is a desire to share for the good and enjoyment of others.

It could be a:

  • business book that proves invaluable for entrepreneurs
  • career guide to advise and lift up entrants or junior personnel in your field
  • practical how-to book
  • hobby guide or manual
  • biography or memoir
  • cookbook for readers to make recipes from your rich cultural heritage
  • travel book recounting your exciting experiences on the road

– and more.

All of these have real meaning, and a good editor recognises that.

Your first draft isn’t ‘rubbish’. It’s just the birth of a new ‘baby’ – and like any newborn, it might need to take a little time to find its feet before it can run!

But it can grow into something truly amazing, if you’re willing to work on it and understand that critique isn’t criticism.

Don’t slate your own work. Believe in its value.

Above all, be sure to find an editor who understands you and your project, who can shepherd your writing with candour and empathy. That’s half the battle won, as they’ll be straight regarding what you need to know to create a successful book and be your cheerleader along the way.

If you’d like to know more about how to work with an editor and the different types of editing, take a look at my free mini-guides!

And if you’d like more information or to have a chat with me about your project, contact me.

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