Enough About The First Draft
Very few resources are truly infinite. The ones that come to mind are sunlight, wind, and articles about why writers shouldn’t fear first drafts. There are probably more self-anointed writing gurus than there are writers, and everyone finds a clever way to give the same advice: your first draft is always going to be bad. Some say that writing is like turning on a rusty faucet, and you have to let the brown water run until it turns clear. Others talk about how drafts are like the individual brushstrokes of a painting, simply parts that are not representative of the whole. Or that a first draft is like putting clay on a potter’s wheel, and the revisions are when you start to shape it.
I could list these cute sayings all day.
The lesson, of course, is true. Even if we hear it more than we need to, it’s important to learn that great writing takes time. But I’ve found another, scarier phenomenon that isn’t discussed nearly enough: sometimes the second draft is worse than the first.
It’s no secret that writing is a marathon, not a sprint. But every inspirational blog post about the importance of rough drafts seems to present the idea that writing always improves in a linear fashion, which is most definitely false. In my experience, it’s quite common for a first draft to be incredibly endearing. It’s not polished or ready to show the world, but it represents a raw burst of passion and creativity that sparkles on the page. My first drafts are like Grateful Dead songs: riddled with errors, but fun enough that it doesn’t matter. Then I reread what I wrote and begin to impose discipline and structure. I take everything I know about dramatic theory, map out the journey I want the audience to take, and arrange the scenes in a way that looks professional. Then I rewrite. Then I rewrite again.
And more often than not, the results are not nearly as good as what I started with.
I know enough about myself that this no longer panics me. I know that my rough drafts aren’t presentable, and that my more outlined drafts sometimes feel emotionless. I know that by the time I reach the fourth and fifth draft, I’m able to add my passion and creativity back into the properly structured script, and I’ll have fulfilled my original vision. But it’s taken me a while to figure that out.
As daunting as it can be for a new writer to take the first step, I imagine it would be even worse to find yourself writing a second draft that’s inferior to the first. There’s an endless amount of inspirational material helping writers through their first draft, but I find the second draft much scarier.
I’m certainly not saying that everyone’s process is the same as mine. I’m sure there are plenty of writers whose work improves linearly. But this is one of many areas where new writers would benefit from a more nuanced discussion. We tend to glorify the first step of a journey, when the next few are often much more difficult.
We oughta get a few motivational speakers on that.