Stop, Your First Draft Is Never Going to Be Perfect

Every wrong sentence you write leads you to a good one.

Photo by Rahul Pandit from Burst

One of the most intimidating parts of writing a novel is the infinite number of possibilities. You can take your story up, down, sideways, or all around.

How should my character act? What words do I use to portray this next scene? Should I use this idea or the one I had earlier? You don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer.

These struggles probably sound superfluous — but here I am, having them. Writers advise we follow the characters, but I think my protagonist is just as indecisive as I am.

Still, I didn’t want indecisiveness and confusion to stop me. I wanted to embrace it and use it to my advantage. So, I decided to write and write (and write a bit more) until I found the right words.

If you’re like me and you don’t know which direction to take your story, do what I’m doing: write everything.

Take it one sentence at a time — even if they’re terrible.

If you keep writing, you’ll find what you’re looking for eventually

What writers say is true. You need to write to get rid of all the bad to get to the good.

I wrote the beginning scene of my book over and over again before I finally realized what the hell I was trying to say. Every scene, every word, every action was wrong.

I don’t mean that in a self-deprecatory way. I say it honestly: as a writer who wants to write a good story.

I kept writing. I thought I was being a perfectionist. Move on, I kept thinking. You’re taking too long.

I’ve never written a book before, but I’ve written three 50,000- to nearly 90,000-word fanfics. If there’s anything I learned from my time with fanfiction is that I can’t write in a non-linear way. If I don’t know how my beginning looks, I’m not going to get the rest of the story correct.

Knowing this, I realized I wasn’t being a perfectionist. I just had to be clear about my opening.

And you know what? I’m glad I kept writing because last week, I arrived at my beginning. It’s not the best-written piece, but it’s right.

I can move on.

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” — Neil Gaiman

If you don’t know what the right words are, keep writing. Over and over again if you need to. When you write the bad, you get one step closer to writing something good. I’ve always been a firm believer in that.

Keep writing, and inevitably, you’ll stumble over something you can run with.

Don’t be a perfectionist

As I said, I struggled with not knowing if I was being a perfectionist. Are you trying to make your story perfect, or are you trying to get it right?

“Right” means that you figure out what you’re writing. You know what the characters are doing and where they’re going. That’s what I have. I can keep writing because I know where to go.

“Perfect” means you already have all the right information. You know what to write next, but you’re caught up in making the writing itself flawless.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from writing books and quotes, it’s that you can’t make the first draft faultless. You just need to write the damn thing.

I’ll admit, there’s a small part of me that wants to make my work better. But I won’t because if I get caught up in making the details “perfect,” it’s going to take me years to finish the first draft.

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page. — Jodi Picoult

So, try to steer away from perfection. Let’s get the right information down and move on. Maybe the writing itself won’t be impeccable, but that’s what second and third (and fourth) drafts are for.

I’m still a pretty crappy fiction writer

I have a talent for writing — just as you probably know you have, too. (Let’s not be humble here. We wouldn’t be writing otherwise.)

But I acknowledge that I have a lot to improve — especially in fiction. This is my first book. If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’re writing your first book too.

We still have a ways to go with the writing craft. The truth is, we’re never going to reach perfection. That’s an impossible goal.

Even if we aimed for greatness, we wouldn’t reach it in the first draft (or even the first book). We’re not good enough yet.

Write the best story you can write. Then, edit it and make it better later. But for now, get it down — the entire book — before you aim for something that’s not within your reach just yet.

Final words

Keep writing lousy shit.

I’m going to make that my motto for this process. I won’t arrive at something good or something right unless I keep writing crap.

I don’t know if other writers would agree with me. Maybe I’m completely wrong in writing too many words that might not be worth something, but this is working for me. This is what’s getting me through the book, so it’s what I’ll continue to do.

Maybe it can help you too.

The work is always accomplished one word at a time. — Stephen King

Write for fun. Write bad crap you think is good until you re-read it. Write until you arrive at something right (not perfect) and move on.

If we want to be one of the few who finish, not just starts, then we’ve got to keep pushing forward. Writing a book is difficult and intimidating and scary.

But it’s also our dream. It’s fun and exciting and challenging. Let’s focus on that and how fortunate we are to get to write. Let’s not take this journey for granted.

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