I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before: get your first draft down. Don’t overthink it. Just get the thoughts down, get the words down, and finish.
It’s common advice, and it’s not hard to see why. One of the hardest lessons for a new writer to learn is that you have to actually finish projects. And that’s really friggin’ hard! Unless you’re very, very fast, writing 80,000+ words will take several months of work. And that’s just finishing draft #1!
Thus, the advice: just finish, even if it’s garbage.
But you know what? “Write a shitty first draft” means totally different things to different people. So here’s what it means to me, and why I think it’s an excellent idea… if you’re doing it the way I do.
What does it mean to write a “shitty first draft”?
So, first thing’s first. Finishing is important. Finishing is really important! But this doesn’t mean anything goes. Specifically:
- Write all the events that you want to happen, even if they’re out of order or don’t have the right emotional tone.
- If you have scenes you absolutely love to death, put them in here.
- Connect those scenes as best you can, and foreshadow them as best you can, even if you aren’t 100% sure you’re going to keep all this content.
- Don’t worry about how nice it sounds. Your scenes don’t have to be beautifully crafted. They just have to exist.
- Attempt to put all the connections in. For every plotline or character arc, you should put all the major events in: every plot twist, every reveal, every important landmark of character growth.
- Write all the way to the end.
- Try to structure it as a story. This means that there are no holes, no “And then everyone was somewhere else, with no explanation!”, and no “WRITE FIGHT SCENE HERE”s. Try to connect the dots.
Does that mean that you only write stuff you want to keep? Of course not! I always have a few scenes (or a few chapters, or many chapters…) that I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to throw out. But I write them if I have to do so to finish the story, then push through to the ending. But I write everything I know I want, connect it with stuff that will probably be similar, and finish.
The end result usually looks like a coherent novel that you could theoretically read and understand. It’s just not very good.
What does a “shitty first draft” NOT mean?
So here’s the problem: I’ve seen people take this advice really differently. “Just finish, no matter what? Great! There are no rules anymore! Nothing matters! There are no standards! Now, as long as I reach 80,000 words, I’m successful!”
And then they just write nonsense. Your story isn’t long enough? Throw in two chapters of backstory! Add characters or events for no reason at all! Who cares! We’re just aiming for a word count!
No! No no no no! You should definitely not:
- Write nonsense.
- Completely give up on telling a story and only care about producing a full novel’s worth of words.
- Change your mind about the story you want to write, but write the old idea anyway so you can “just finish” something.
- Write filler for the singular purpose of raising your word count.
- Give up on writing anything that resembles a linear story.
And why not?
The point of finishing a story is to create something you can edit.
When people say “JUST FINISH THE STORY,” they aren’t giving you permission to write anything–anything at all!–as long as the end result is longer than 80,000 words (or whatever your goal is.)
The goal isn’t only to finish. If you want this to be more than just a learning experience, you also need to make something you can edit. And what can you edit?
- Characters you want to keep
- Events you want to happen
- Plot arcs you like
…Even if these are all trash! If your characters exist but are poorly fleshed out, you can fix them. If you have events you like, but they’re not in the right places, you can move them. These things may be poorly written and not very engaging, but they exist, and you want them, so you can fix them.
But if you needed 20,000 words to finish a story, so you padded out the ending… who cares? You don’t care about that content. And when it comes time to edit, and to decide what stays and what goes, your only choice will be to throw it all out. And now you’re 20,000 words poorer and you have nothing to edit.
Remember: it’s okay to write messy. Just be strategic about it.
A first draft is like a puzzle. You can finish it if you have all 1,000 pieces on the table in front of you. If your pieces are gross? That’s fine. You only have the outline, and you’re missing big parts of the middle? Still a place to start. You have a bunch of pieces that don’t even belong to this puzzle? That’s okay! You can fix it.
But you can’t make a puzzle by starting with 1,000 mixed-and-matched pieces, especially if your master plan is to just sweep the table and start over from scratch. In that case, why bother? You wrote a full-length novel, sure. But you didn’t make it any easier to write the story you want to write.
So write messy. Write imperfect sentences. Write not-beautiful things. But write with purpose, too.