Monday, June 13, 2011

Quick and Dirty, or How I Like My First Drafts

I have a problem: I strive for perfection. In many areas of my life, including my day job, this is a good trait. My employer, not to mention my colleagues, appreciates well-researched, grammatically correct and error-free documents. But family, not so much. They could care less if the grocery list reads “potatos” or “veg”. It gets the job done.

So, in some ways, it all depends on the context. Sometimes we need to be perfect or as close to it as we can get. Other times, we just need to get the job done. Perfection can come afterwards (or, in the case of the grocery list, not at all).

What’s that got to do with fiction writing, you say? Everything.

When I write a story, I start out with a first page that I read and re-read perhaps a thousand times by the time I have completed the manuscript. That’s because every time I open up that file, I see that first line, that first paragraph, that first page, and I can’t resist titivating with it a little. Take out a word. Add a semi-colon. Before you know it, I have a perfect first page. But such initial perfection can often come at the cost of the whole.

There have been times when I’ve spent so much effort and energy on that first page that I’ve neglected to finish the story at all. Oops. By the time I got around to the last page, where I left off last time I was actually writing and not just adjusting the first sentence, the story has grown stale. I no longer care about the characters or plot I was so excited to put down on paper just a few days or weeks ago.

That’s because I wanted to the first draft to be perfect. Yet that’s not the job of a first draft.

A first draft is meant to put the skeleton of a story into black and white. No more, no less.

The flesh and blood of the story comes later during the process of editing and revising and, yes, rewriting. It is because of the desire to save ourselves this draining and occasionally tedious part of the process that we concentrate on creating a perfect first draft. But there is no short cut to perfection. Perfection comes with revision and rewriting. Period.

Don’t spend time polishing the bones of your skeleton. Write that first draft quick and dirty. Get it all on the page. Finish your story.

You can add detail and characterization in the second draft. You can correct plot points and inconsistencies in the third draft. Breathe life into your story bit by bit, with a careful hand on the bellows, and it will live forever.

Photo courtesy of luigi diamanti at

No comments:

Post a Comment