Don’t Polish a First Draft

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It shouldn’t be your goal when you’re breathing life into a new writing project to keep reworking it. Your goal is writing, not rewriting. Consider the following when you start your first draft.

Your time is valuable.

When I first started writing, I would get up at 5 AM to write before work. Because, as any writer knows, the words don’t write themselves–you need to do it. That’s right, you need to get your fabulous self in front of your laptop and start typing.

I was, at the time, a pantser, not a plotter. When I first started writing, it had not occurred to me to have a fully formed plan before I wrote a novel. I now see the benefit of an outline and, after two books, started to use one. Pantser or plotter, you need to write and write start to finish before you go back and make things pretty.

So why waste precious moments you’ve stolen from your day-to-day life? Don’t lose time making chapter one grammatical gorgeous and poignant if you don’t even know how chapter one relates to the very last chapter. (Sidebar: they should relate to one another.) Novels remain unfinished because of lack of time or time wasted.

Therefore, write. Write it all. Then go back and take a look.

The first draft is all about your passion.

You’re a writer because you have a story to tell. It’s literally scratching its way out of your soul. Think of your new project like a seedling. Beyond soil, water, and sunlight, it really doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles to succeed. It doesn’t need a fancy pot or decorative rocks, or a ceramic yard gnome to guard it. It just needs you to keep it watered in the sun and the soil.

The same goes for your writing. It needs you to stay focused and tell the story, allowing it to unfold and develop into this beautiful, living thing that is unique and wonderous as a whole being. Just like you shouldn’t worry about only one leaf on your new plant, you shouldn’t be micro-focusing on only one chapter or one sentence or one setting when the whole of the whole needs to be cared for.

When you consider this line of thinking, I hope I’m giving you the permission you need to just let go. Get it all down. Let all the words flow out and give yourself over to the storytelling, not the editing.

Just get it done.

One summer, a first draft deadline overlapped with a family camping trip to the southern part of my state. I left my family and the camping trip to go home and write to make up for the lost two days worth of word count totals. Finding myself in front of my laptop wishing that I was still at the campground by the sea, in anger, I told myself, get it done. Write and don’t stop until the green light says you hit the total. Resigning myself to write with abandon so I could get back to campfires, beaches, and cycling, I wrote as fast as I could.

To my great shock and surprise, that was some of the best writing in the whole book. Why? Because I cleared my head of all the garbage that normally slowed down my writing. My normal writing headspace held thoughts like these: Is this sentence grammatically correct? Did I frame this scene properly? Is my pacing okay? Is this waterwheel accurate to the time period or should I go on the internet and research European waterwheels? Will anyone actually want to read this dribble?

But on that particular sunny day, I placed all my efforts into solely writing the scene–no stops, no ifs, ands, or buts allowed. That should be your mantra during your first draft.

Go get it down. Get it all down. Then, worry later–during your second draft.   

Postscript: This book is an extremely helpful, Zen approach to writing your first draft. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

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About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website:

1 Comment

  1. Elmore Leonard would disagree. He apparently polishes as he goes.
    Of course, 99% of us are not he, and the level of quality of our first drafts being so low that your advice is well taken.

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