Why I Won’t Accept Writing A Shitty First Draft, And You Shouldn’t Either

Today was supposed to be a fantasy post. Yeah, I know. Something happened and I find myself here, staring at a setback.

I made a deadline to have the first draft of my second book done by the end of April. I may still make it. To be honest, I’m not sure. But that’s okay.

It’s good to have goals. We all should. Sometimes we’ll maul our goals like a Direwolf on one of the Stark’s enemies. Yeah, I’m totally working some fantasy stuff in this post. Other times we know when something isn’t quite working. I don’t know about anyone else, but I like to be realistic. I’m not going to lie to myself and pretend my first draft will be done by the end of the month if I have doubts. I may still pull a miracle out of my pocket. I may not.


Going over my outline, and being 45,000 words into the draft I noticed something was missing. The proposed outline would have been, in a word: fine. Okay. Not good, but not bad either. So-so. That wasn’t good enough for me. I’m always looking to tell the best possible story I can. I want more than meh, okay, fine, and so-so.

What did I do?

I stopped writing. GASP! But so many writers say we should write through our first draft and go back and fix everything later. So many writers are okay with a shitty first draft. They expect their first drafts to always be shitty. Soon, whether we notice or not, shitty becomes the norm for all first drafts.

That’s not me. In the military, at least in my shop, we had a saying: Work smarter, not harder. I would much rather pinpoint what’s wrong now, as I’m writing, or, even before I write something, rather than press forward half heartedly. It’s my belief that our final product will suffer because of that same half heartedness, or shittiness.

So I stopped and ironed out what was bothering me with the plot. I upped the stakes and added some new chapters. Hopefully those actions make for a better, more dynamic read, and will also leave me in a great spot for a third book.

I think many writers get so hung up on “finishing” a first draft that any old first draft will do. Quality goes out the window. We become one dimensional, hell bent on finishing no matter what. We lose what makes our writing, and us as writers, special. And all for the sake of finishing a draft that we know will take much longer to go back and revise, rewrite, and fix. Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?

Let’s say we bring the same approach to building a bridge. Would you want to drive across that same bridge knowing the builders were okay with shitty quality while constructing the infrastructure? Sure, they may go back and patch things up, they may not. Just knowing shitty quality was acceptable at any point would give me pause.

Strive for excellence in every aspect of your writing. Excellent first drafts are like anything else when it comes to writing, you get what you give. If you give a shitty effort, you’ll come out with shitty results.

Of those 45,000 words I have for my first draft I’d send every last one of them to my critique partners. I’ve got nothing to hide. I believe the level of quality is pretty high. I don’t accept shitty anything when it comes to my writing. Nor will I ever shrug something off while I create. I don’t want my readers to expect anything less than my best…even in the first draft stage.

While I may not make my deadline, I will have a quality first draft. It’ll be a draft that won’t need much in the way of revising. It’ll be a draft that I can be proud of and not some fixer-upper that needs extensive work.

You. Shall. Not. Pass. Shitty first draft!

If you find yourself staring down a setback, assess the situation honestly. If you need to stop and come up with a better game plan, do it. As long as you’re making your manuscript better, you’re doing the right thing. And I think that’s where so many writers get confused. By allowing for a shitty first draft they lose sight of the fact that they aren’t making their manuscript better. You wouldn’t build your house on a shitty foundation, would you? Then why is it acceptable to build our manuscripts on shitty first drafts?

At the end of the day we must realize that our readers are smart. They’ll know if we cut corners. Piss them off and you can kiss your writing career goodbye. I don’t think anyone wants that.

Always do what’s best for you, and your writing. Just make sure you’re helping your cause and not sabotaging it. If we can constantly create quality, it’ll soon become habitual.

Quality > Shitty every time.

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8 comments

  1. And this is why I don’t tend to type “The End” until I’m happy with the whole (and I mean to a “share with my beta readers” standard).
    Yes, I go back and edit as I write, but, like you, I just can’t forge ahead when the little voice is telling me the story is broken further back. Sure, I might try–especially when the pressure to finish is mounting–but everything conspires against me. My “muse” makes a run for it and progress slows, sometimes to the point I’m making no progress, even in empty words… I just get no words. So, it is best, for me (not speaking for others), to go back and identify and fix the problem. Mainly because I know whatever changes I make will affect future scenes. If I forge on, knowing that what I’m writing will need major changes because something earlier needs a major change, well it’s better to just go back and make the major change and (maybe) only write the later stuff once, right?

    Now I just need to learn to write faster so I have time to do that whole “Put your manuscript down for a month” thing…

    1. I’ll sometimes go back and tinker when I’m thinking about things. It helps bring clarity. Yeah, we all have different ways in which we create. The most important thing is knowing what works for you and being confident in what ever those methods may be. Speed will come…when your little one grows up a little more. 😉

  2. Interesting. Very, very interesting.
    I must admit, I do lean towards the camp which says the first draft ‘won’t be very good.’ But thinking about it in terms you’ve laid out changes things slightly.

    Just because a first draft ‘isn’t very good’ certainly doesn’t mean it should be shitty. And, to be honest, nobody should *aim* for a shitty anything. Accepting that a first draft won’t be the final product is one thing, but writing something crap ‘just to get it down’ is, as you say, counter productive.

    Some people genuinely work better that way, but I’m only just coming to grips with the level of editing some of my work requires. I don’t want to have to do that with every novel I write. So I’ll certainly be upping my game. 🙂

    1. That’s the point I was trying to make, that we shouldn’t accept shitty, or like you say, aim for shitty. I see so many other authors suggest we just write to get things out and forget about things like quality. It boggles my mind. Rarely do see anyone suggest writers take care to create quality. However we create, doesn’t really matter. What does matter is how well we do it and to what standard, first drafts included. Imagine how much time we could save if we consciously strove for quality, even in first drafts?

      While I can’t speak for anyone else, I can say I’ve produced about half a book in a month. While it may need a little more work, it’s still one of the better quality first drafts I’ve produced. And it has everything to do with the fact that I set out to produce quality.

      The key is knowing what works best for you. Have fun experimenting, and writing.

  3. My little sister makes fun of me because I do so many rewrites…when I’m only half way through the plot.

    I don’t do the rewrites because I don’t support a “shitty first draft.” I believe that everyone has their own techniques to writing. You compare it to building a bridge, but you forget about the engineers drawing and re drawing and calculating and recalculating the blueprints before the construction crew arrived at the site. Some people the shitty first draft works. That might be how they figure out who their characters really are and the plot as well. A shitty first draft could to them what an outline is to you. 🙂 just keep that in mind.

    1. I’ve always been a big proponent of each writer discovering what works best for them and fine tuning it for maximum results. Anyone who has been following this blog for any length of time can attest to that. As I say toward the end of this post, writers should discover what works best for them. Too often I see authors harp on just getting things down and not worrying about quality because we can go back and fix things later. To me, that doesn’t make a lick of sense. Think of it in terms of studying. If you have poor study habits, you’ll likely have poor test results. Or, flawed blueprints will produce flawed buildings. Poor anything will likely yield poor results. I think the same logic applies to first drafts. If writers can change their mindset to focus on quality, I believe the results will be far superior to anything they’ve produced previously, and take much less time.

      Plotter, or pantser, doesn’t matter. The hows and whys aren’t really the issue. The issue is focusing on quality as opposed to just getting something on the page. I understand completely that different folks implement different techniques when it come to writing. In fact, I wholeheartedly support it. However, when deadlines become involved, a writer’s time becomes paramount. They may have only months to produce something worthy for publication from scratch. That’s why focusing on quality in all areas of our writing, however we accomplish that, becomes so important.

  4. I freaking love you. For once I don’t have to wade through all the bs and figure out three more years down the line that YET ANOTHER piece of information is opinion and not fact. And I’ve been doing it – wrong. Again!
    Why is it that some things just don’t click home with me until another person says something?
    Ugh. Regardless. You’re freaking awesome.

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