Understanding the Role of the First Draft
Understanding the Role of the First Draft – Audio version
The First Draft
For new writers it’s intuitive to think your first draft is the book written. Sure, you’ll know there are things still to do: editing, a bit of testing that it fits together, spell-checking – those sorts of activities. But basically the job’s done.
Well, I’m here to tell you, if you think that way, you’re doing yourself a disservice and putting yourself into a world of hurt, sooner and later.
First drafts have a special role to play, and you need, to not only understand this role, but fully embrace it.
Who Says it Best?
There is the quote, repeated, rephrased and scattered across the internet from the late Sir Terry Pratchett that flings the bedroom curtains aside so we can glimpse the intricate and meaningful landscape beyond. He said:
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story”
To fully appreciate the depth and breadth of this exquisitely understated and concise titbit of story-writing wisdom takes one who has written and produced books to published level. Only then is it possible to look back and discern the full meaning and striking significance of its insight.
How to Think of Your First Draft
Pratchett’s clarification of the story first draft struck a strong cord with me. My engineering background helped me to make the breakthrough and comprehend that writing a good story isn’t something you just do; it requires stages of development. The remarkable skill of creating something as complex as a book was in fact every bit as challenging as creating a large-scale engineering solution. It’s a concept eluding early writers leading them to produce mediocre results far below their full potential.
Now, I understand the temptation to duck out here, dismissing all this as a level of discipline with which you don’t want to engage: I was the same when I started out – I just want to start writing and see how it goes! But hang on if you can and hear how to use the first draft as intended and let it be the breakthrough for you as it’s been for me and other professionals.
I’ve broken it down and summarised into four parts.
1. Telling yourself the story
Let’s start with this one as it’s obviously on the list. It is also the most important one, as it contains an underlying truth that must be stamped into the very soul of all writers: Not every word you write is gold.
It’s so easy to think what you’re writing in your first draft sets the story in concrete with only a few subsequent tweaks here and there, after all it takes a heck of a lot of time and emotional expenditure to get that far. The thought of major changes or restructuring of the masterpiece you’ve laboured to produce, or god-forbid to delete whole scenes or chapters, is unconscionable.
You’ll typically have one of two responses in your head to reading your first draft: It’s done and it’s good, or it’s done and it’s no good, I’m rubbish at writing, and you move onto some other activity.
You have to appreciate – the first draft is only a stage – nowhere near the job done.
2. Attractive Characters
Good stories are not about things that happen, no matter how cleverly the construction of unexpected twists and side-swiping turns. Good stories are about people – or to be more precise – their transformation through adversity of external, internal and interpersonal pressures. The reader wants to see this battle of learning, growing, maturing in a way they can root for, especially for the main character to achieve. It might be the detective who pulls all the clues together to solve the case, or an abused wife who finally gains the strength to leave her controlling, narcissistic husband.
It’s a complex and often subtle task to get right, so expecting to nail it on the first pass isn’t reasonable. Only when reading the first draft can you know whether this has happened effectively to grip the reader, and whether it’s a stimulating enough form of character growth to hold a reader’s interest.
3. The Quality of the Ending
Great endings can let you off the hook should the bulk of the story labour to pull the reader in. But a great story that finishes with a whimper disappoints and frustrates a reader leaving them irritated, damaging your chances of future sales.
If you believe the first draft is the book written, but the ending turns out not to be the big finish you hoped for, then you’re going to be disenchanted and either publish and be damned, or consign it to some electronic folder, perhaps never to be unwrapped again.
Be open to this role of the first draft and be ready to tweak, modify or even rewrite the ending until it slam dunks a great finish to the story.
4. Getting it Down
If you want to kill off creativity and chances of finishing your book, especially if it’s your first one, then by all means, agonise before writing each sentence, then stop immediately after each one, and edit. There’s no better way to stymie the creation of thrilling, absorbing writing. It’s also a wonderful source of so-called writers block, where you place too much pressure on yourself in the belief that words, once written, are some kind of binding contract.
To write with thriving imagination you need to be in the zone, and the zone demands freedom to create on-the-fly with free-flowing thought. The first draft is about setting the conditions to do that. Unhooked, no shackles, no consequences for failure, no embarrassment for bad grammar or any shoddy, predictable, cheesy scenes or two-dimensional characters, plot holes and flimflam endings. You’re the only one who’s going to see it. So let rip and happily cringe in places if you must on the re-read, but get it down with all its ugly warts and handsome nuggets, then begin the job of refining.
The first draft is the first stage to understanding your story as it unfolds beneath your fingertips. Let it take unforeseen turns, and have characters do things you’re not expecting – it’s okay, see where it goes – the first draft is telling you the story. But it’s not done until its done, so threads that lead to a dead end or deadlock, or a character behaviour that becomes incompatible to the story, get yourself into the mindset from the start and know it will happen and you will be editing, deleting and redoing, regularly significant amounts.
And be prepared, this will take more than one edit, more than two drafts – in my case, as with many writers, as many as six drafts before I’m happy. Each draft gets quicker and easier of course as each pass resolves issues.
Coming to terms with this role of the first draft and subsequent ones, transformed both my writing quality and productivity. I’ve never looked back, and whether you meticulously plan your story or write organically by the seat of your pants, the first draft rule applies equally.
I urge you to get into this mindset of draft-writing, I promise it will make all the difference.
Miles changed careers in 2008 from Senior Systems Designer in aviation to be a fantasy author. His first book hit No 1 on Amazon for Epic Fantasy and knocked The Hunger Games from the top slot in Waterstones. In 2010 he started a self-publishing business, and began bi-weekly creative writing meet-ups in Kent called NAGS.
He continues to write, run NAGS and teach creative writing courses to all levels. He’s delivered 5-star-rated courses for Canterbury Christchurch University and North Kent College.
“It was great having Miles teaching to us today.
It’s given me some fantastic things to
think about – a very inspiring speaker,
thank you for a brilliant session.”
Emily Dorsett Beard
Sign-up for free best practice and useful tips about creative writing sent straight to your inbox.