Five Secrets About Writing They Might Not Have Told You (Pt. 1)

I’ve been writing my blog for the last year or so concentrating more on readers than writers. I decided to approach it this way because it seems like every other writer with a computer blogs about the writing experience, or their sales, or what’s going on in publishing. Perhaps it’s the much-used writer’s adage “write what you know” that prompts this choice of blog topics, but I resisted. Then recently, I did a couple of interviews and guest posts on blogs; doing so reminded me that much of what I’ve learned about the craft of writing was through trial and error or plain dumb luck. After pondering these issues, I decided it was time to address some of them for the newer writers who take the time to read my blog. Maybe I can help you avoid making the same mistakes I made or clarify a few issues lost in the writing murk. Five in particular came to mind, so I’m going to deal with each of them in separate posts to keep things from getting long-winded.  Here’s the first; hope it helps.

1. We know first drafts are supposed to suck, but do we know why?

As Ernest Hemingway famously said: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Those words from Papa Hemingway shouldn’t come as a surprise from a man who rewrote the ending of A Farewell to

Hello Papa
Hello Papa

Arms 39 times by his own admission, but do we know why the first draft should resemble feces? None of us want to write shit, do we? I don’t think so; I know I don’t, and I don’t think I’m different from other writers, except perhaps in the fact that I may be taller than some and balder than others. So isn’t there someone out there who produces publishable quality material on the first pass? Probably there is, but it ain’t me, let me tell you. But I didn’t know this when I started writing (the part about shitty first drafts, not the part about me sucking…that used to be very apparent).

When I was very new to the concept of writing novels, I took a by-mail writing course to improve my craft and took the opportunity to ask a published author about a professional’s editing methods. He responded that most published authors he knew had their works published almost as is. His response left me a quivering puddle of jelly, unable and unwilling to write another word because nothing other than a half paragraph buried deep in chapter four of my work-in-progress was publishable…I know because the same instructor told me so.

The book that saved my writing life
The book that saved my writing life

I nearly quit writing until a fortuitous trip to the library landed James A. Michener’s Writer’s Handbook in my possession. If you’re a writer and you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it because it includes a copy of a first draft of one of his books. Guess what? It was shit. And I don’t mean it could have been better, I mean my dog produced more publishable material when we were paper training him. So who should I believe? The schmuck with no bestseller who has to teach to make ends meet, or an author who sold millions of books? You guessed it: Mr. Michener. (Point of note: I later found one of my instructor’s books at a used book sale or other place mediocre books go to die…I couldn’t get through three chapters).

Back to the question: do you know why your first draft is supposed to suck? The logic behind this is simple: you shouldn’t edit as you go, and unedited writing typically sucks. Make a mess of your first draft; you’re going to go back and clean it up anyway. Don’t write chapter one, then go back and do it again when you realize it’s shit, then again when you see it’s only progressed to being crap, then a third time because poo is still not good enough for you (hey! I’m a poet and didn’t know it!). If you take this approach, you may never get to chapter two, and guess what happens if you don’t get to chapter 2? You don’t get to chapter 3…or 4…or 10…15…19…or, like far too many writers, the end.

What a first draft should look like
What a first draft should look like

And what’s the point of starting if you’re not going to finish?

“But Bruce, I’m excited about my project. I can do it. I can write each chapter four or five times before going on to the next, so stick your blog post–”

Now, now. Don’t be rude, I’m trying to help. Here are some quick tips on how to write that first draft:

-put your head down and don’t look up until you’re done

-if there is something you know you want to change, make a note of it but DO NOT go back to deal with it until the rest of the manuscript is finished. Carry on like the change has been made, but don’t give in to temptation.

-when you are starting your writing for the day, go back and read the last few paragraphs to pick up the thread of the story, no more than one page at most

-don’t worry if things aren’t in the right order–rearranging is another form of editing

-did I mention not to go back and rewrite anything?

Editing before you’re done ends up being a vicious cycle, a black hole into which a writer can get sucked, never to climb out of again. The in-process rewrite is the chief cause of the writers’ most feared of diseases: writer’s block. And that leads very tidily to my next post…How to Avoid Writer’s Block.

See you there!

By the way, if you still don’t believe me that first drafts are supposed to be no good, check this out to see what the actual, physical copies of the first drafts of some very good books looked like.

And here’s another example of a poor first draft, courtesy of Jimmy Fallon:

13 thoughts on “Five Secrets About Writing They Might Not Have Told You (Pt. 1)

  1. Thanx for posting this on your blog. iLL needed this right now. The doubt has been liming over head four weeks now. iLL follow you on twitter and will be looking forward to the next 4 to come.


  2. Oddly enough, I was just taking a break after my latest chapter spun off in a direction I wasn’t expecting and I find myself here. I was considering going back and writing in the previous chapters and tweaking in new chapters in the middle so I could take back control of it.

    Now I will just go back and finish where I left off and not concern myself *right..flippin…now* to tuck in the sheets and fluff the pillows.

    Timely article for me!

  3. Such very good points! We’d be quivering too if we thought our first draft had to be the one to go out. Since we are co-authors, there is a bit of editing done along the way as we each make our own additions to what the other has written, but we save the big editing for after the book is completed. Wow, but that is a time saver!

    1. Having a co-author puts a bit of a different spin on it. I’m curious how the two of you work together…how much outlining happens, how you split up the writing duties, etc.

  4. Even though most of us know there’s no way our favorite books were published on the first draft, it’s still hard not to compare yourself to other writers. I think it’s great to remind people of this often. I always love hearing about how many times it took Hemingway to get his work right. If Hemingway took 39 drafts to get it right, I don’t think anyone else should feel bad about his or her rewrites. It’s nice to think that the masters made mistakes too.

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