Monday, April 5, 2010

Can A First Draft Be A Bad Thing?

Okay, the title of this post sounds a bit stupid--I'll admit that. But, I spent several hours this weekend reviewing and editing about 70 pages of technical writing by multiple authors. In my first round of edits, I thought I was doing a decent job of taking what the original writers had come up with, making my suggestions, and offering some changes. I later realized from my advisor that the help I had provided was not sufficient to make the work publishable.

To be able to improve the work enough to bring it to completion, I ended up having to ignore what had been written before--those early drafts--and rewrite the documents as if I were writing them on my own for the first time.

I won't get into the educational aspects of what I did now. (I do plan on going over these documents with the original writers in-person to try and turn this into a learning experience.) But, something I realized was that, in my original revisions, I had been led astray by some bad early drafts. Even though these drafts carried misinformation and exaggerations, I could not see the problems as clearly as I did when I started from scratch.

So, how does this impact my fiction writing? If you've been following our blog for awhile, you probably know I'm not a fan of the outline. I think that freewriting in the beginning is important for tapping into the subconscious, and I tend to write my early drafts without a clue as to where I'm going and what I'm trying to say. But, as I revise my own stories and the work of others, I'm realizing more and more that a bad first draft often serves as a trap that I can't get out of. Sometimes, the badness of my own writing feels permanent, and I can't free my mind enough to be able to re-imagine a better story.

Maybe this is a good thing. Capturing that original spark might bring some vitality to a piece. If I'm trying to tap into my subconscious, maybe I shouldn't then let myself re-imagine a story entirely. Still, I feel like there must be some compromise that can be made to allow both freewriting without finding myself stuck with only bad material.

In comes quantity and quality. If I'm going to approach a story using the freewriting approach, I am realizing that I need to ensure that I have enough of that fresh starting material to revise later. So, if I'm exploring an early idea, I shouldn't stop freewriting once I have just enough material to hold the story together. I should explore all of the different avenues of the topic, write about it to exhaustion, so that if I end up cutting one avenue completely, I still have others I can keep. Quality in a first draft is something I wouldn't have worried about at all even just a couple of months ago. But, I'm starting to realize that even if I'm a pantster, I need to slow myself down and at least make sure that I'm in the right mental state before I start pantsting--or whatever that verb is. I don't think I can just start writing about the stapler sitting beside my computer anymore. The source of that freewriting inspiration seems to matter.

Am I deluding myself here? Am I just feeling wounded from my weekend experience? For us pantsters, do we still need to at least plan a little before we start writing, or can we really free ourselves to drastically revise a story at any stage of the game?


  1. I think it's the finished manuscript that matters. Early drafts are where ideas are born; this is true for outliners and for pantsers. Even if you scrap 99% of the first draft, if the 1% that is saved is the high concept premise that drives a great novel, it was not a bad first draft.

    The important task is to keep re-writing until the manuscript is done.

  2. My current WIP is the first long piece I wrote in its entirety before attempting to revise. In the past I've written and reworked one chapter at a time, getting it polished before moving to the next.

    The idea of revising 150 pages at once was overwhelming to me. A complete rewrite is the only thing that's keeping me sane. I print out ten pages, then literally rewrite as I go. Then I move on to the next ten pages. Until now I revised on the computer and saved as a new draft, but this method is helping me better see what isn't working and what is, and is forcing me to make bigger changes.

  3. I can understand the danger of writing oneself into a corner with a bad first draft. Occasionally I feel that way about my writing, as though once I set down the words in the first place, all I can do is fiddle around and line edit, and not change things too drastically. But my critique partners help me with the big-picture issues. Often they point out things I wouldn't have discovered on my own. After all, they're bringing fresh eyes to my work.

    And even though I'm pantsing my novel, I still have an idea of where each subsequent chapter has to go, and what it has to deal with. There's no outline, but there is a plan of sorts. It's not completely random. So far it's worked out, I think.

  4. I'm finding that you're right about the problems of the first draft painting you into a corner. I'm seeing that plot issues are dragging my whole novel down the tubes.

  5. Rick, in the end, it is the finished manuscript that matters. I just wonder if sometimes a bad first draft can bias you in the wrong way.

    Michelle, I found myself having to do the same thing with my novel. I printed out the pages so that I could type into a new document on my computer. I agree that it was a big help.

    Simon, when I first started writing, and for several years afterwards, I consciously tried not to plan. Nowadays, I'm finding that I'm planning more, having more of the story in my head. I think that helps to keep me from getting trap, but I do wonder if that also hurts the story in some ways. I'm thankful to have my group of readers too. :)

    Lois, I felt the same way at times with my novel. I do think that first drafts can trap us in some ways, as I mentioned in the post, but I also think with enough work we can make our stories functional. I wish you the best if you plan to revise your work. It's probably not as "down the tubes" as you think it is.

  6. One of the things I've had to distance myself from is the sense that "this is set in stone" with the first draft. Because, let's be honest here, it's a story that you've made up. Nothing about the story is set in stone by any stretch of the imagination.

    This realization is the reason I've been able to take Moriah's personal history and more or less rewrite it several times over as I've had lightning bolts of inspiration that will help make the story stronger and more visceral.

    So understand that once you've discerned your purpose with the novel, everything is up for the chopping block. Even in the first draft.

  7. Davin, I think you just gave me my subject for a new post either here on Thursday or a day I steal of Scott's while he's hiatus-ing.

    I will stand boldly and say you may be wrong about tapping into your subconscious. (You know I'm just pushing buttons...)

    *ducks glare*

    I think you can tap into your subconscious as you PLAN just as much as when you WRITE. The only reason I say this is because as I was planning out Cinders, I started free-writing the "synopsis" for the book and discovered some wonderful things about the story and the characters. I felt as much into my "creativity" at that point as I do now writing the story - after it's all planned out with a synopsis and outline and everything.

    I know everyone writes differently. I'm already planning a post about this, so don't yell at me yet. *wink*

  8. I think that as Michelle points out, there are two (and maybe more) issues here: the ongoing and unresolvable outline-or-not issue and the inviolate nature of inspired writing, especially in first drafts. I'm going to maybe reframe the debate. We'll see how it goes.

    I think that any writing we do, if it's good writing, is both hard work and inspired (tapping into our subconscious or whatever), and that included free writing and outlining and editing. All of it is writing, and during all of these activities our imaginations should be engaged and active. Some of my best stuff comes into stories at the last minute, when I think I'm just there to fix a typo and suddenly I've rewritten or added a whole scene. Even though I write to an outline, I am still making all of it up, one sentence at a time, just like a panster. The idea that an outline acts as a damper on imagination is simply false. Or, to put it another way, if an outline dampens your imagination, you're doing it all wrong and not using your imagination properly. All of which is a long digression to put out there the idea that any writing is hard work and we tend to love what we've written because of the inspiration that went into it.

    A first draft is a harrowing event that few of us would like to repeat, and so part of the resistance to change, at least for me, is exhaustion. "I already wrote this damned book!" Another part of the resistance to change, the trap Davin's talking about, is that once we've spent so much time with the story writing the first draft, that's just how we think the story goes now, and so we try to polish that version without stepping back and seeing if the version we've written is the best version of the story. It's like our novels are things that we've found in curio shops and we take them home and shine them up and show them to our friends. In real life, we can take the curios apart and put them back together in new shapes, or build new ones afresh, or hit them with a hammer and see what happens. But that's hard work we feel like we've already done, and it takes imagination that we might not be bringing to the work of revising.

    I agree that a bad first draft can be a trap. I wrote a novel that had a good premise and good characters but went off-task at about the halfway point, and it took me a long time to realize what was actually wrong with the book because I thought I had a pretty solid story from the first draft onward and I worked on everything except the bones of the story, which was where the problem was actually hiding. Blah blah blah. I'm not actually here, so I can't actually have said anything.

  9. I would imagine some sort of start to finish game plan would be necessary, BUT it doesn't have to be carved in stone or even more than a thinly veiled idea. As for the first manuscript I think that works best as an outline. Novels don't have to be re-written as much as they do tweaked.

  10. Matthew, that's a good point. I do think this, as in many things, is a mental block and not an actual one. Someone, my brain feels like it's riding a certain train going in a certain direction.

    Michelle, I didn't mean to open up a debate about planning versus not. I do think that is a matter of each writer's working style, so no glaring here. :)

    Scott, yes, I wrote about the not planning more as a consequence of my own methods rather than in direct relation to what I was saying about first drafts. But, I love your curio metaphor. That really rings true to me. And, in some cases, I think we need to even push the curio off the table so that we can rethink what other curio should be there in its place.

    T. Anne, all I know is that I've written stories and novels without that plan in place. So, it's not absolutely required. Whether or not it helps is a different matter. I tend to work rather inefficiently.

  11. Scott, you sure are leaving long comments for taking a hiatus. But I thank you for that because your comment is valuable. I like your curio analogy.

    Davin, I know you weren't opening up a debate, but I just had to say something because your words sparked so many things in my head - especially with what I've been doing lately on my film project. It's so much outlining and planning, and that's about it.

  12. Michelle: I'm commenting at such length, I think, because we were really busy this weekend and I haven't written a word on my WIP since Thursday, so I have a backlog of words!

    Davin: Here's what I really think. At some point after writing a first draft, there will exist the story we actually tried to tell and the story we wrote down. The tendency is to work on the story we wrote down without comparing it to the story we actually tried to tell. If we didn't write it down well, it won't match the story we tried to write. If we don't look up from what we wrote and compare it to the story we wanted to tell, it can be a bad thing. Our story can (and often does, I think) be a separate thing from what we wrote down. We also need to learn how to look at the story in abstract ways that aren't trapped inside the prose on the page, to see if the story is well-formed or not. We can only do that by looking up from the writing on the page and seeing the story in our imagination. Am I making any sense at all here? Am I the only person who sees the story itself as a separate entity from the novel we have written down?

  13. I wrote my first three novels as a panster. It was a challenge and I think the first two will never be publishable. I am glad I followed the advice to 'keep writing' instead of trying to rework that first novel over and over. For me, that was the right choice.

    I just finished my first 'plotted' work...and, do you know what? I think it was an easier process and I am happier w/ first draft. It feels like a third draft to me, if that makes any sense.

    Now, plotting was difficult and I had to find an inbetween method because I never know all the details (I think that takes the fun out of it,too) .. but it was an interesting experiment and experience.

  14. Loved your post as I am exactly at the point where I have been doing so much technical writing (and revising) that I am allowing it to inform my non-technical writing (I was tempted to say 'creative writing' but then, academic writing is also creative, isn't it?.:))..
    And this is not a bad thing at all. I spend a lot of time with my first drafts(for both kinds of writing)- precisely for the reason you mention- I don't want to be stuck with an idea or way of perceiving something that isn't 'TRUE', simply because I want a first draft to work with. I end up doing a lot of free, out of sequence writing. However, even after a (relatively) reasonable first draft is born (either of a fictional scene or an academic paper), I find that at every stage of writing, I need to RE-write rather than revise. This is probably because I want to make sure that I haven't missed a spark or any interesting, 'potentially pursuable' idea. This might make it seem like I've wasted too much time on writing the early drafts- but that isn't true either- because each time I re-write, the material I've written, even if it is different from the original draft, is sort of built on it, but much more coherent and interesting, flows better and generally is a better piece of writing (even conceptually).

    I had been wondering about whether this was actually the right way to do it (especially for my non technical, fiction writing) so it was heartening to read of someone having similar questions/thoughts..:)


  15. could just write an outline first.
    (haven't read the other responses so sorry if I'm repeating)

    Here's the thing.
    Your subconscious is still working outline or no.
    In my gut, I knew there was a scene that didn't work. I attended a lot of writer's panels this weekend at NorWesCon, and a couple comments got me thinking, and by the end of the weekend, I had a possible solution to the problem.
    Outlines, or even full drafts, do not dampen the "creative spark." It's always there. But writing an outline actually will give your subconscious something to chew on.
    Feed your subconscious!

  16. Davin, I'm a reformed pantser and I agree with Rick on this one. I wrote my first novel without an outline and I wrote half of my current WIP with an plot point graph and a timeline in place. Feels like the results are the same.

    Even with the graph in place I wrote the story as it came to me and often revised the graph to reflect the 'new' direction of the story. For me the outline is a loose guideline, nothing to be adhered to as any cost.

  17. Great discussion by the way! :)


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