You Don’t Have to Get it Right the First Time

Photo credit: re_birf
Confession: sometimes, when one of my cross-posted onto tumblr posts explodes, I like to cruise through the comments and tags. It’s a fun and quick way to see what people think about the posts and the feedback has often been pretty thought-provoking.

The posts that get tumblr-happy are often craft posts. And the comments and tags, I’ve noticed, often include writers stressing out about trying to nail all of the writing tidbit dos and don’ts while drafting.

Except here’s the thing: with the exception of writing tips specifically geared for first drafting, most are not meant to be tackled while first drafting.

To clarify:

Things you should be focusing on while first drafting:

  1. Getting the story written.
  2. See #1

Things you don’t need to worry about while first drafting:

  1. Getting your opening right.
  2. Getting your middle right. 
  3. Getting your ending right. 
  4. Getting your characters right.
  5. Getting the worldbuilding right.
  6. Getting the sentence-level writing right. 
  7. Getting the pacing right.
  8. Getting anything perfect the first time.

The truth is, the first draft is for you, the author. It’s about getting the story out and creating the clay that you can later shape into an awesome book. It’s about getting a feel for the story and the characters and working out the progression of the plot. It’s about putting down some words so that you have something to revise later.

It’s not about getting anything right the first time.

I’ve been finding, as of late, the more I learn about the revisions, the more I’ve gotten comfortable with making huge changes. And the more I’ve gotten comfortable with making huge changes, the more I’ve loved the end result. And the more I’ve loved the end result after making tons of changes and doing revision round after revision round, the more I’ve realized that old adage “writing is rewriting” is painfully true.

But it also takes a ton of pressure off the first draft. Because your sentences can suck and your pacing can be messed up and your plot can be messy and your characters can be not quite right and it’s okay. It’s all okay. It’s okay if you have blanks and cities and characters with no names or personalities. It’s okay if your book sags in the middle and if you use a terrible, clichéd prologue. You do whatever you need to do to get that story down and don’t worry for one second about making it right while first drafting.

Take the pressure off when you’re first drafting. Don’t worry about the work to come.

Just get the story written.

What do you think? Is getting the story right the first time important? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
"The truth is, the first draft is for you, the author." (Click to tweet
Writer @Ava_Jae says the first draft is "not about getting anything right the first time." What do you think? (Click to tweet)


Amy said...

I've always found it hard to really 'rewrite' a manuscript, and have never felt that the changes I was making were big enough. But with my current ms I've been making some big, structural changes and adding lots of new scenes to add depth, and that rewriting process is all starting to come together! It's true the more you practice and persevere with it, the more you learn

Ava Jae said...

So true! I definitely understand that experience—with my first many, many manuscripts I was the same way in that I didn't really get rewriting. But I've since come to realize that rewriting doesn't necessarily mean throwing everything out from scratch and starting over (though it can, for some people)—it means going through and reliving the story and making substantial changes for the better. :)

MK said...

I love this post. That is all.

Ava Jae said...

:) Happy to hear it!

allreb said...

I needed this post this morning. I am in the midst of drafting Book Two - it's the first time I've drafted something under contract, and it's a sequel that has to wrap up the story, and after a few years spent on rewriting/revision of book one it's the first time I've drafted in a long time. I have to keep reminding myself that the prose especially is going to be terrible - seriously seriously bad - because that's how all of my drafts are. And that I can't fix story weakness until I find them, and that even with an outline, I can't really do *that* until I've written them.

It's a good problem to have (oh no, my diamond shoes are too tight...), but it's still pretty stressful.

SJ Mitchell said...

Thank you for this.

It's so nice to see confirmation that getting the story written is the primary goal the first time through. You can't furnish the house until it's built and you can't build it until the foundation is laid.

Trying to get it right the first time through is doing it backwards.

Emma said...

I love this!

Carissa Taylor said...

Yes! This is why (like you I believe) I always like to fast-draft. Ditch the inner editor!

Heather said...

Ooh, I love this, because my most successful first drafts that I've worked with started out as less than 20,000 words. I like building up instead of paring down, and you can imagine that there's not much but a skeleton when you draft like that. However, what I'm learning as I keep going in my drafts is that you don't have to get everything right the second or third time either—you can focus on different things as you keep going forward and still get better, and still have a lot of problems to fix as well.

Ava Jae said...

Ah, yeah, I can definitely imagine how tough that must be. But you're totally right that the important thing is to just get the story out first, then you can go through and fix the story weaknesses/weak prose, etc. Definitely a good, but understandably stressful problem to have!

Ava Jae said...

You're so welcome! And you're 100% right. Very nice way of putting it.

Ava Jae said...

Happy to hear it! :)

Ava Jae said...

Yes! I agree—this is also a big motivation for first drafting for me lol. Much easier to just race through it and get the words down then fix later.

Ava Jae said...

Wow! That's interesting. My first drafts also are always the shortest draft, but I can't say I've ever ended anything before 20,000 words. And you're also right that it doesn't have to be perfect the second or third time around either—you can take all the revision rounds you need to perfect one problem at a time.

Mit Sandru said...

Write and use your right brain. Don’t let the left brain get in the way
and analyze everything. Use your left brain when you edit.

Lori A O'Connell said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this reminder. It's been like swimming through a river of molasses trying to get each chapter perfect in the trilogy I'm writing. I'm going to get it all down now and then go back.

Carolyn said...

Awesome advice at just the right time! I keep telling myself this first draft DOESN'T MATTER but then I keep getting my head in a twist because I'm trying to tie everything together and struggling with it. From now on, I shall press on, leaving blanks for the bits I'm not sure about, and PRESS ON until I get to the end. I've done this for every novel I've written so why am I finding it so hard for this one??

Charmaine said...

Great post. I exhaled. That's what I think.

Suzanne said...

This is so true. I burned through three quarters of my first draft, happily making notes to alter this, revise that, as I went. Then I started to doubt my characters...and it all crashed to a halt. Haven't written anything substantial for two months - argh!!
I'll take your advice and just get on and write.

Ava Jae said...

You're so welcome, Lori! Drafting can be really difficult sometimes, especially if you're aiming for perfection the first time around. I wish you all the best with the rest of your writing! :)

Ava Jae said...

I totally understand what you mean about certain things being more difficult in different novels. I find that every novel I write is a totally new journey with different challenges to tackle along the way. It can be tough, but in the end the effort is so worth it. Good luck!

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Charmaine! :) Glad to hear the post resonated.

Ava Jae said...

You're so welcome, Suzanne! Pushing through can be difficult, but it's definitely worth the struggle. Good luck with your writing!

yagerdelagrange said...

I agree with Charmaine - big exhale here too. It's good to keep everything you said in mind while writing that first draft.

Nicole said...

Hurrah for the pressure free first draft! Thank you for this!

There's a nice Terry Pratchett quote that agrees with your idea about the first draft being for the author: The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.

As a sort of pantser I seem to tell myself the wrong story sometimes but I only feel if its right or wrong after the first draft is finished, never before. I am also a fan of revisions so I'm not scared of changes so much as I'm scared that I can't change things and make them right.

Great post! Removing first draft angst one post at the time! :)

Ava Jae said...

Glad to hear it! I find that keeping this stuff in mind while first drafting takes a lot of the pressure off. Good luck!

Ava Jae said...

You're welcome, Nicole! I've heard that Pratchett quote before, but great reminder! Definitely applies here.

What you described with pantsing makes sense to me. I don't pants stories anymore, but I used to do some pantsing so I understand what you mean—and many times I'm still not sure if something worked or not until after I go back through it. Finally, I definitely get the fear of not being able to figure out how to make things right with revisions. It can be scary, especially if you have a lot of big changes to make!

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