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five great things about bad first drafts
why writing fast makes you write better
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
11.4.11
writing

Writers work in all sorts of ways, which is why you hear a lot of conflicting advice about how best to write. There are morning and evening writers, writers who need to put something down every single day, writers who plan and writers who don't.

But in November, you'll find a huge number of writers who all write the same way: as fast as humanly possible.

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. You set a goal of writing a complete draft of a book, a total of 50,000 words, between November 1 and 31. I've done it several times, and I like it so much it has become my favorite way to produce a first draft.

Please note those last few words: first draft.

NaNoWriMo isn't a way to write a book. It's a way to get that first draft produced as fast as possible so that you can then turn it into a second draft, and then a third, and eventually, a book. But if you understand that your first draft isn't a final product? I think writing a fast first draft is the best way to write.

What else do you need to come to terms with? The fact that your first draft will not be good. It will be bad. It will make you cry and gnash your teeth and doubt yourself. It will make you want to give up writing. But that's part of writing, seriously. You won't know the good stuff from the bad stuff if you don't recognize you're capable of producing both.

So, what's so great about bad first drafts? These five things, for starters:

1. Word count is the easiest thing to measure. Especially if it's your first book, you have to be able to measure your progress. You have to be able to set goals, whether it's the official NaNoWriMo goal of 1,667 words a day or some other number. Otherwise you run a big risk of stalling, or giving up because you don't feel like you're making the right amount of progress, or you just put things off to another day. Word count goals force you back to the keyboard, which is where you need to be.

2. The faster it is, the more flexible you are. When I started writing novels, I absolutely hated to throw anything out. I thought, "But I spent so much time on that scene! I can't just get rid of it!" But if you have a scene that isn't right for your book, if it slows down your plot or misrepresents a character, it doesn't matter how long you worked on it. It has to go. So you might as well write a sloppy draft and axe that scene rather than spending months on the draft and then realize that your perfectly crafted little interlude/action scene/conversation in the park/bank/hallway really can’t stay in the book. Revision is a fact of life, and your first draft will never be perfect, even if you do obsess over every sentence. So skip the word-level craftsmanship at first. There’s plenty of time for that later.

3. Perfection is paralyzing. Any one of us could spend three hours a day writing for a month and still only have 10 pages at the end of it. If you sit down every day and revise what you’ve written, working on it until it satisfies you, you may never move forward. The fast first draft forces you to look beyond what’s already there and get fresh words on the page every time you sit down to write. Most people in NaNoWriMo give up revising entirely – all writing is new writing, and if a bad sentence shows up, you don’t worry about fixing it, you just write another sentence and another and another.

4. Momentum is your friend. I’ve found that staying in the world of the book – returning to the same characters and plot and environment every day – does wonders for my creativity. During the first draft, when I’m just getting to know my characters, I find that they develop more quickly when they’re always on my mind. If I take too much time away from a new draft, it takes me a while to get back into the world, to remember the players, to figure out what will drive the action forward next. On a fast first draft, there really is no “time away.” This can be painful sometimes, but in the end, it's definitely a good thing.

5. A bad draft is better than none at all. The biggest danger for aspiring novelists (and for some of us further along in the process, frankly) isn’t writing a bad book; it’s getting discouraged and giving up. Every writer I know has at least one half-done manuscript in the drawer, something abandoned along the way. And there are even more people out there who no longer think of themselves as writers because they couldn’t get their first novel done.

A bad first draft is the best first step to a good second one.


ABOUT JAEL MCHENRY

Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

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COMMENTS

james white
12.5.11 @ 1:11p

I agree with some points, however, before you start writing, you should create a list of key points and elements that will appear in the story so that you don't wind up extensively rewriting and editing your first draft.




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