NaNoWriMo: Why “Bad” First Drafts Are Great

Dear friends,

We’re more than halfway through NaNoWriMo, and that means you’ve got enough written to start feeling stressed about the quality of what you’re writing. Last year I wrote about reassuring your inner critic. This year I’m going to get a little more philosophical.

We talk a lot about lousy first drafts being important and necessary and valuable, but we don’t talk about why they are important and necessary and valuable. This can make it hard to really believe in their value. It’s much easier to fall back on judging a draft in comparison to finished books, and then to view your necessarily slapdash NaNo draft as falling short, and then to feel miserable. Let’s move away from that.

Looking like a finished work isn’t what a first draft is for. It’s a tool to help you tell the story. Think of drafting as needing to make yourself a hammer before you can build yourself a house. The hammer can be simple, even crude—it’s just a stick with a chunk of metal on the end. It sure won’t look anything like a house, and you may stare at it and say, “This little thing is going to help me make a great big house that I can live in? Ha ha, very funny.” But if you don’t make that hammer first, the house will never happen.

Every tool has a purpose. The first draft’s primary purpose is to help you figure out a direction to move in, and to get you moving in that direction. A first draft has far more in common with an outline than it does with a finished book, and should be evaluated accordingly. In fact, many first drafts are outlines in prose form instead of bullet point form. I have personally written a story by developing each section of my outline into a paragraph and each paragraph into a scene. It turned out just fine—once I revised it to smooth out the seams.

Like an outline, a first draft should have:

  • at least one theme that you intended to include from the beginning
  • at least one theme that developed organically as you were writing
  • some characters who experience change or growth over the course of the story
  • a plot of some sort, ideally linked to character change
  • a sketched-in setting
  • an emotional heart—the thing that makes readers want to keep reading and makes you want to keep writing

Your first draft does not need to:

  • have eloquent prose or witty dialogue
  • be well paced
  • have a plot that completely makes sense
  • start where the story starts
  • explore the world in detail beyond what’s needed for plot purposes
  • make the reader laugh or cry

Those are all things you can fix during revisions. If your first draft does them, great—but you may well cut a bunch of your draft while you’re doing your first revision pass, so don’t get too attached to those gorgeous sentences and clever one-liners. (If you love them too much to throw them away, save them for another use.) Making your first draft all shiny is arguably a waste of time; if you’re endlessly polishing and refining your hammer, you’ll never build anything with it. Get it reasonably functional and then move on to building a house that’s really beautiful.

The first draft’s other purpose is educational. If you’re building skills and habits, if you’re learning things about yourself and how you write and how writing works for you, and if you’re getting a sense of where your story’s going and what it’s about, then you could light a manuscript bonfire on December 1st and still consider your NaNo time well spent.

Your NaNoWriMo project should be considered in the context of NaNoWriMo, which is emphatically not designed to produce a good first draft. It’s designed to produce any first draft. If you had any other way to make first drafts happen, you wouldn’t need NaNo; you’d just write. The only reason to do boot camp–like things is to force yourself to do something you otherwise wouldn’t do. So by that metric, whatever you’ve written during NaNo is inherently a success, because it exists. (If this sounds familiar, it’s the same thing I was talking about last week, from a different angle.) But even if you’re not doing NaNo, it’s more than fine to write a first draft that is purely functional and totally lacking in entertainment or esthetic value.

If you must look over your draft (though it’s often best to avoid this before the draft is finished), evaluate it as a tool. Don’t ask “Will this draft become a good book?”; ask “Will this draft help me write a good book?” And then keep pushing forward to finish your draft, because otherwise you’ve just got a stick and a chunk of metal and some dreams about a house.

Happy drafting!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This post is part of a special NaNoWriMo 2017 series supported by my fabulous Patreon patronsGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

6 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo: Why “Bad” First Drafts Are Great

  1. Once again, one of your posts may have just CHANGED EVERYTHING. Specifically, the list of things that a first draft should have versus what it doesn’t need. I know I’m too exacting about my first drafts–changing that mindset is a steady but slow process–and this may be precisely what I need to let some more of it go. Especially settings–I’ve just read a series with a-m-a-z-i-n-g worldbuilding, and one of my all-time favorite series also has stunning worldbuilding, and reading them has me so discouraged that I could ever create a world half that immersive and engaging. And that is making me so doubtful about my draft, and I sit and stew and contemplate just the right details to insert. But you’re totally right, that there’s enough setting there for rough establishing shots that can later be filled in, perhaps during a setting-only revision where I really sink down into it. (I also try to remind myself that not every fantasy series needs to be travelogue, right??)

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