First Drafts Are the Worst

This month’s ISWG prompt is:   Are you a risk-taker when writing? Do you try something radically different in style/POV/etc. or add controversial topics to your work?

You can check out the blog hop (and join!) here: https://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

As I mentioned in my last blog, my main work in progress is an epistolary novel. That is about as “out there” as I am going these days. Not common, but not innovative.

I could be considered somewhat extreme in that I am currently engaged in an endurance writing event:  Most Years Writing the Same Book. I started it when my kids were toddlers. So long ago that The Clapper hadn’t even been invented yet. My kids are now in their twenties. They can ask their cell phones to turn on the lights for them (and send me motivational gifs), but I still haven’t finished writing the book. Twenty-five years and counting — extreme writing games here I come!

In college, the main extreme event was staying up all night trying to finish an assignment on time. I didn’t usually do that for writing assignments, but one time I somehow missed that I had to turn in a rough draft for a research paper.

Up until that point in my life, I’d never really dealt in rough drafts. I usually wrote papers as a first draft/final draft combination. Even if I did turn one in as a rough draft, it was still basically finished. I’d make any minor changes the teacher suggested, remove half the commas, write it out again, and turn it back in. No real editing was involved.

So when the instructor said “Rough draft due tomorrow” I freaked out. I was supposed to have two more weeks, and now it was due the next day! I tried writing like I always had, but after the first few pages I had to face that even if I pulled an all-nighter I would not be able to create the final product in one day. I had no choice but to embrace the “rough” in rough draft. I wrote pitiful, pitiful things like “They got off of the ship.” “They walked ashore.” “Back on the ship.” “Everybody died.”

PITIFUL.

It was the most horrible thing I had ever written, much less turned in for a grade. I was mortified. But I turned it in on time, so the anxious student in me tried to be happy about it.

For the instructor’s sake, I hope that it was just a way to check that students had started the assignment. I hope no one had to actually read that first draft. In any case, I don’t remember if there were any editing suggestions. I just remember wanting to make it better.  

It was the first time that I did a real edit on my writing. And it worked! I crafted sentences that had more than three words. I double checked my commas. I have no idea what the final grade was, but since I have no traumatic memories of it I’m betting it must have been better than the “F minus-minus, who let you in this college anyway?” that the rough draft deserved.

I occasionally used the “write utter crap and then fix it” process on other things, but I pretty much forgot about it once I was no longer writing college papers. Oh sure, there are versions of “write, then edit” everywhere. Even now there’s a sign on my desk that says “First drafts don’t have to be perfect-they just have to be written.” But somehow I never seemed to relate it to my writing process. I didn’t believe that terrible first drafts were a real thing that writers dealt with. I had somehow (read: purposely) forgotten the research paper memory.

I’ve relearned that lesson though. And in honor of The Worst First Draft of All Time, I am changing the sign on my desk to “Everyone died.” That should help keep me on track. I might end up having to retire from the writing endurance games, but I bet my kids will be able to come up with some great gifs as consolation prizes.

9 thoughts on “First Drafts Are the Worst

  1. joylenebutler April 7, 2021 / 11:04 am

    Never, ever, give up. I began my next book in 1991. It’ll be published sometime this year. I came close to giving up a few times. Too stubborn, maybe. I enjoyed your post, Lori. Nice to meet you. I’m #115 on the list.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ellen Jacobson April 7, 2021 / 11:54 am

    You have a great sense of humor. The lines about the kids and the Clapper and the writing endurance games cracked me up.
    Stick with it – it’s going to be a great book! Love the fact that it’s an epistolary novel. I find that style fascinating.

    Like

  3. Loni Townsend April 7, 2021 / 5:05 pm

    I dunno… I first got the idea for the book I’m working on when I was 15, so that’s been 24 years for me. 😀 (Though I’ll still let you claim the longevity prize because I didn’t actively start working on this book until 9 years ago.) It was great to meet you, Lori, and I shall never forget your name as I’ve been called it many times over my life.

    Like

  4. Samantha Bryant April 7, 2021 / 8:18 pm

    First drafts really can be painful. I always promise myself I can improve a bad draft, but I can’t improve something that never got written. Best of luck as you move forward!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nick Wilford April 8, 2021 / 7:29 am

    I think writing “pitiful writing” in a first draft could sometimes be better if it allows you to keep the momentum to get the story down. Feeling the need to edit as you go can cause things to drag a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Diane Burton April 8, 2021 / 8:40 am

    Love your sense of humor. Some stories take longer to write. When we get bogged down making sure everything is perfect, we won’t get done. (That’s from someone who edits as she writes the 1st draft. lol) I hope you’re writing something else along with this ultimate story???

    Liked by 1 person

  7. alexjcavanaugh April 8, 2021 / 6:33 pm

    What pressure! I wouldn’t want to hand over a rough draft especially one I didn’t finish.
    Welcome to the IWSG!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Kathie Estes April 22, 2021 / 6:44 pm

    Love your blog Lori. I have known for years that you are a great writer with a sense of humor, with a sense perseverance, and with a sense of purpose. I love your writing style and am sure anything you write I will read and be so proud of you. Keep on keeping on.

    Liked by 1 person

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