Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shitty First Drafts

This post originally aired on 11-06-2008, and I thought a reminder that we can write garbage in our first drafts would be helpful. Getting it right the first time is rare indeed. Think about this as you head into the New Year.

Writing is a talent, a dream, an obsession, a release, a thrill, but it is also a craft. The words don't just magically appear on paper - all arranged at their finest. The words we love to read were painstakingly crafted by the author, paragraph by paragraph, line by line.

Anne Lamott, a wonderful writer describes the process in her book, Bird by Bird, this way: “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts."

And further:

“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

What wonderful advice. No wonder her books are so good.

A book can go through as many drafts as necessary, and every author has his or her own method of getting to the finished manuscript. The following suggestions are not RULES. Do what works best for you.

The first draft - get the story down from beginning to end. Some people like to edit as they go, and if that works for you, great. Others, like Ms. Lamott, prefer to get the story down, then go back to edit, and I am in that camp, too. I may do a little editing of two or three pages, just to jump-start the writing the next day, but I don’t go to far back. Fine-tuning can sometimes be just an excuse to avoid going forward.

A hint I picked up a long time ago is to stop writing in the middle of a scene. That gives you something to work on right away the next time you sit down to write, and often the next scene will flow naturally out of the one you are working on.

More about the second draft when I post again. In the meantime, have fun playing with your characters.
Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Information about her books, her editing services, and her blogs can be found on her Web site at  Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

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  1. Thanks for this reminder! I'm hoping to pick up and work on edits and rewrites in the new year, and wondering if it's worth it - I think I'll pull Bird by Bird off my shelf for more inspiration before I get started!
    Happy New Year!

  2. Anne Lamott is my favorite, and her advice to write the shitty first draft changed my writing life! How utterly freeing. I so look forward to starting my next shitty first draft! I had the privilege/fun of seeing/hearing her speak here in Santa Fe last year - what a treat!

    Happy New year!

  3. I love, love, love Bird by Bird. And this post means even more because I finished a first draft this week. I'm anxious to go at it and fix all the things I'm sure need to be fixed, but I'm letting it sit for a while. Happy New Year!

  4. Here is to shitty first drafts! I've begun my first mystery novel and it is putrid...

    But I love the characters and the story and I will continue with this first draft.

    I do like to end at the middle of a scene so that I can mull things over until I get to it again. It seems to help.

    Happy New Year and I'm so glad I've found this blog!

  5. Katie, I have Anne's book handy where I can get it and read parts now and then. You are so right about the inspiration. We all need it as winter sets in in January.

    Melissa, I am soooo jealous. LOL I would love to meet her in person. I have read many of her books and they are all so good. My hubby gave me Bird by Bird when it was first published and I am so glad he bought it on a whim.

    Liza, good luck with the rewrite. Good idea to let it sit for a while. I think Anne even suggests that. (smile)

    LOL, Lorelei, I'm sure your book is not putrid. Congrats on finishing the first mystery novel. First ones can be special.

  6. I am falling in this camp, too. It's taken some time to accept a shitty draft, but when it's done, there's something to work with. Ideas come and go, but once down on paper, they're more likely to age gracefully into a refined piece.

  7. I intend to edit and publish a few of those shitty drafts in 2012! Bring on the literary TP. :D

  8. The advice to stop in the middle of a scene sounds like a good idea, but I've tried it a few times and it doesn't work for me, unfortunately (although I know it does for other writers). I prefer to keep going with the momentum I've built up in the moment. I dislike the feeling of coming back to a scene the next day and it being sluggish when I know it was flying the previous day.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  9. Elle, I don't advocate stopping when the scene is really flying. I stop as it is winding down and leave a few notes of where I was going. That is what gets me going the next time.

    Dean, I liked what you said about scenes aging gracefully.

    Dani, thanks for the heads up. Think I'll buy some stock in Charmin. LOL

  10. My first drafts are messy and fast and overwhelming, but I love that feeling of going back later and shaping it into something beautiful.

  11. I don't stop in the middle of a scene. I've done that a couple of times and the next time I picked up the manuscript I'd forgotten where I was going. I do like the idea of letting the child in you write the first draft. I let my inner child do that until she had written so much that I had to take control. But the shitty stuff I'd written got woven into the final manuscript - or some of it anyway

  12. I appreciate this reminder early i the year. As KatieO said, I'm off to pull my copy of Bird by Bird into my line of vision to remind myself of the need to read portions of it again!

    Happy New Year!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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