Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Sucky First Drafts


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the first draft of anything sucks.* This ‘truth’ is a great comfort to writers who read their first drafts and want to tear their hair out. “Oh, this sucks!” they scream, while dragging their poor monitor to the window, as if it’s the monitor’s fault. But then they take to a writer’s forum to bemoan the horrible state of their first draft, and someone points out this truth, and they feel better, and press on.
It’s liberating, being allowed to suck. It allows one to proceed with some degree of confidence. ‘If shitty first drafts were good enough for Hemingway,’ we think, ‘they’re good enough for me!’
As I read a thread over the course of the weekend, however, something started gnawing at my insides. A feeling that some are starting to take to this ‘truth’ and turn it into a Truth, or that they’re looking at it as—dare I say it?—another rule.
But remember this: Just because the first draft is allowed to suck, doesn’t mean it’s supposed to suck.
What I mean here is, if you draft at all like me, then much of your draft will, in fact, suck. I’m a brain dumper. In my head is a slippery, slimy story scampering around in the dark. It’s hard to see all of it. It’s quick and elusive. Drafting, for me, is the act of dumping that thing out into the bright light where I can pin it down and examine it. That first draft is full of typos, awkward sentences, and needless repetition. I’ll repeat, almost verbatim, the same paragraph in three different places, because I’m desperately trying to communicate a particular idea or theme. Once this thing is on the page and has stopped moving around so much, I’m looking for things that don’t suck: believable characters, a compelling plot, authentic dialogue. The prose itself can suck, but these things have to be sufficiently non-sucky to convince me to go on to the next phase, the (hopefully) Quality Wordsmithing phase.
So, I guess if there’s any advice in here, it’s allow that ‘truth’ to grant you freedom to write without too much worry, but make sure you’ve got something good in there.
Looking forward to Friday, when I’ll have Lisa L. Regan here—see you then!
*Apologies to Jane Austen. And Hemingway’s quote is, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

17 Responses

  1. There are varying degrees of suckage. I believe in allowing the prose suckage on first drafts, though I often get caught up trying to get the words "just right" before moving on. Plot suckage can be fixed, but it's harder to deal with. Character suckage is probably the worst. That's something I think you gotta get right from the beginning to make everything else work.

  2. Love the first line in your post, lol!

    My first draft of my current ms was so sucky I wanted to cry. I'm now on my fourth revision and it is looking real good. Writing takes time. Embrace the suckage.

  3. When I think back to my first draft, I want to hurl. But I knew nothing about writing then. I wonder what my first real draft will be like the second time around. Hmmm…

    As an editor who often reads sequels & second books, I often scratch my head & wonder if the author had anyone else read it before it got to me. Second books tend to be less workshopped than previous manuscripts, and that drives me nuts!

  4. My first drafts are getting better – my first one was pure hideousness – so overblown and a lot of irrelevant drivel. But I learned SO much about writing by getting it out there and learning how to work with it. Thankfully my 1st drafts are improving 🙂

  5. It definitely shouldn't be thought of as a rule; just a motivator and a freedom-giver. You can't fix a story that hasn't got parts with potential, so while you're allowed to suck, some effort does need to go into that suckishness.

  6. I agree, too, but some are luckier, apparently… I seem to remember hearing a Tom Clancey interview where he said something like "I write, 'em, send 'em and their published. You get 'em just as I've written 'em." Smacks of a fist-draft-is-perfection kinda guy!

  7. "Embrace the suckage," hah ha. I just hope some people aren't taking it so much to heart that they're barely trying to write a good first draft!

  8. One of the most interesting things about this post has been the sheer number of ways to play with the word 'suck'. Sucky, suckage, suckishness. What fun!

    And I agree: freedom, motivator, not 'rule.'

  9. I think Thomas Harris (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs) had a deal where his books were published pretty much as he sent them. I guess if you're capable of turning out really clean 'first drafts' it works. But if you're revising/rewriting as you go, and not moving on to the next page until this one is perfect, is that really the same thing as a first draft?

  10. Very true. That freedom to write badly is liberating, but we have to know there's something in it worth the struggle. Sorry I disappeared for a while, but it's good to be back!

  11. My first novel is still in first draft – and it definitely sucks.

    I used to write only first drafts, struggling over every word, but the final draft would need little revision.

    I decided to brain dump with my first novel, but now I don't know what to do with the result. I've tried editing it according to a couple of "prescriptions" I've found on-line, but they are too tedious. Tell us how you transform the data dump to a final draft!

  12. Sometimes the first draft doesn't suck. FCF is a good example. The first draft of many of the Claire sections have made it into the published book. With commas added of course! 🙂 I think this should just be a rule, not a Rule.

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