21-Day Novel Day 3: The myth of the first draft

\"bigstock-Alarm-clock-standing-on-stack--52359475\"Theme music for the day: Avatar (go James Horner!)
Word count for today: 6370 words in roughly three hours of typing (not including breaks between sprints). No dictation today.

I didn\’t really get going until almost 11, and then spent several hours doing sprint – break – sprint – break. The trick, of course, is to keep the sprints longer and the breaks shorter. It\’s something I am still working on…! I write about 700-800 words in a 20-25 minute sprint. In theory, if I could get in two such sprints an hour and keep it up for four hours (with about 15 minutes of rest in each hour), I could hit totals of 6000 words a day easily. Instead I wrote – with breaks – from about 11am until 2pm. Then I was out to an appointment, and didn\’t get home until about 5pm. I made dinner for Liz and I, and watched an episode of a TV show (Amazon – we don\’t do \”appointment television\” in this house, we watch on OUR schedule, thanks!) over dinner. Had a nice chat afterwards with Liz.

Then it was back to work. About two hours and several sprints later, I had my final count. Pretty happy with that for the day. It puts my total so far for the challenge at 14,892 words. Not bad for three day\’s work! By my original goal, I should have been at about 15,000 by today, so I am just about exactly on target.

Tomorrow is a work day. I get up at 6am, I\’m at work by 7am, and I don\’t leave work until 11:30 at the earliest. Sometimes midnight. I might be able to pull off a sprint over dinner, but it will be short even if I can. There\’s a good reason why that plan I made back on Day 0 showed ZERO words for every Thursday.

People seemed to enjoy my talking about the dictation woes and solutions yesterday, so I thought I would pass along a few other thoughts today. I\’d like to mention one controversial topic on the practice of writing – and that\’s on the quality of the first draft.

The First Draft Myth

\”Just get it down\”, we\’re told. \”You can\’t fix an unwritten manuscript\” is the common wisdom. And – for the beginner – it\’s very good advice. Writing any draft is a challenge when you\’ve never finished a book before. But for the experienced writer, it can be a sloppy practice that hurts you in the long run. When I do my sprints, I correct as I go. I fix misspelled words. I catch grammar errors before they happen. I have been known to realize I needed to add something in the previous scene when I was partway through a scene, and I\’ll go back and add it if I can do so quickly. I just count those few extra words into the wordcount for that sprint.

The result is that my first drafts are very clean. Do they still need an edit? Sure. Stuff slips through. Everyone misses a few bits here and there. But when I write 800 words of a first draft, experience has shown me that post-edits those words will mostly be the same in the final. In fact, my changes run 2% or less between first draft and final.

I suppose part of it stems from my childhood. I wrote my first story at age seven on a manual typewriter my mom gave me. I loved that typewriter, and I used it for years afterward. And nothing makes you want to write clean first drafts like having to retype the entire thing to make corrections!

An utterly clean first draft – a draft which is identical to the final, published work – is not something I can do. It\’s sort of the Holy Grail for me when it comes to drafting, though. I don\’t allow myself to make mistakes \”knowing I can fix them later\”. I work in every session to create the best prose I possibly can, right then, right there. Could I maybe be a bit faster if I didn\’t worry about the quality so much?

Sure. But then I\’d be adding a ton more time on the back end. And editing in line changes – changing the prose, rather than just correcting errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation – means altering your story when you\’re in critical-brain mode, rather than creative-storytelling mode. In my experience, the work we produce in the former mindset tends to be more stilted, less powerful, less dramatic. And once you drop into critical-corrections mode, it can be hard to know when to stop. I know some writers who revise five, ten, fifteen or more times. And each time they complete a new revision the story becomes a little less unique, a little less special.

I\’m not saying don\’t edit. I\’m not saying never make corrections. And for newer writers, even a developmental editor can be solid gold – a good one will teach you much about how to tell better stories.

But I feel that the goal toward which we ought to aspire is the clean draft. The first telling of the story which is also the last. We might never reach that goal; but coming as close as one can is a wonderful thing.

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7 thoughts on “21-Day Novel Day 3: The myth of the first draft”

  1. Hi Kevin! I came here via Chris Fox’ challenge and must say: I totally agree with you. 😀
    I can’t write a “dirty draft” that I just pour out without looking back. It kills me to ignore small (but often critical) improvements and move on. It ruins my concentration. And stopping to take notes is even more disrupting than actually making those changes.

    Not to mention that small changes amount, and in the spirit of the butterfly effect let you end up somewhere else than you intended to go. Why that’s always supposed to be a good thing, I don’t know. My characters don’t know jack about pacing, and tend to cut corners if I let them. 😀

    I’ve actually tried to do a “vomit draft” and got a little over 60K done in 24 days. Of which I had to throw 32K away because they were fluent crap. So: never again. Not for me, thanks.

    Of course I type faster when I write like that. But the result requires more editing than if I’d just edit as I go, and overall this “fast draft” + subsequent revision takes me 40% more time than the slower, more accurate drafting method. I know. I tracked it.

    Long story short: I share your method and can wholeheartedly vouch for its effectiveness. It regularly gets me my 3.5K/day which don’t end up in the bin later, and I’m very happy with that. 🙂

    1. It’s a very rare thing for me to “bin” sections of a book. Oh, I pull a word here and there. I add a sentence or two here and there, during edits. But I hear about people tossing out whole chapters and sort of shake my head. Mostly in horror.
      I don’t do MASSIVE edits while I type, mind you. I simply make the best effort I can to ensure every word and sentence is the best it can be, as I go. Which sometimes means backing up and deleting a few words, or swapping one word out for another that I think fits the scene better. But I don’t let it cost me much time. I’m still typing at 2000 words per hour or better, which I think it pretty good for prose that will be 98% or better the same as the published version.

      1. Yeah, I still have to get to 2K/h. I’m still at 1.4. If I “vomit draft” I can get up to 3K/h easily, so it’s not the actual typing speed. But I’m improving on the edit-as-I-go front with every book, so I’m confident I’ll get as fast as you eventually. 🙂
        Good luck with your challenge, btw. You’re killing it!

      2. So very late to this party, but I enjoyed this article a lot. I feel the same way about first drafts. If I write sloppy, I find it near impossible to “un-slopify” in the second draft.
        The issue for me now is to still somehow up the WPH. I’m getting between 600-1000 words. No where near 2,000. Maybe I’m being a little too careful with my first draft. 🙂

          1. Thanks, man! Was it just a matter of pushing to write more in a session, or did you find it comes naturally after doing it for a while. Because I’ve been writing for most of my life, but still can’t seem to break that 1k ceiling.

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