I’m in the middle of writing a pilot for a scripted podcast idea. I banged out the first draft in record time (for me) in about a week.
While I was writing, I knew that I would need to go back and fix many things — convoluted story points, uneven character motivations, new ideas to explore, scenes that I’d finish writing and then immediately have a better idea for.
That’s the business of drafting. You learn so much about your story and characters by just writing the damn thing.
It took me awhile to let go of my first draft perfectionism and embrace a “shitty first drafts” mentality. I’m a neat freak and it feels wrong to leave things in such a mess.
But I wasn’t getting started on new work or finishing things I had started. I would spend weeks or months breaking story after story, giving up on one direction and starting over when things got frustrating or hard.
I wouldn’t to commit to something that I thought didn’t think worked (and that I secretly feared I wouldn’t be able to make work).
I was letting my impossible standards stand in the way of allowing the words to flow. The end result was, well, nothing.
By embracing a messy first draft, I took the pressure off myself to just write. This shift was transformational. It reminded me that I actually enjoy writing and it’s okay to suck. Everything will be fine.
Writers hear all the time how liberating this mentality is on creative work and I’m here to confirm that it can be.
But for me, there’s a catch.
By choosing to ignore the judgement and perfectionism of the first draft, I simply delay it. It doesn’t just go away. Instead it goes, “Okay, dummy. I’ll leave you alone. Go ahead. Get started. But I’ll be waiting for you in the rewrite.”
When I dive into a rewrite I become overwhelmed as all the feelings of the first draft rush out. Judgement, Contempt. Frustration. Despair.
Fear rumble around in my chest. My anxiety kicks into gear. A low level simmering doubt strengthening as I try to engage with the work.
Fear replaces the joy I found through my no fucks given first draft attitude. I am convinced I won’t find a way through.
Conventional writer wisdom says you can’t fix a blank page. True. But sometimes staring at the block of words you carelessly created can feel just as intimidating.
Now you have the weight of figuring things out. You can’t prolong the decision making. At some point it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get down to work.
Rewriting can feel interminable. You’ve traded the speed of a vomit draft for the careful consideration of editing a second. The no fucks for the some/lots of fucks.
The way through is to recognize how these two beasts are different and embrace them for what they are. You’re not going to speed through a rewrite of a messy first draft because, well, you’ve made a mess. It will be slower. And that’s okay. Set that expectation.
Sometimes you need to sprint to get words down on the page. But I’ve found that I can do myself some favors if I slow down on the first draft a bit.
Even better, step back one level further and make sure your story and outline is solid before you begin drafting. The more you can figure out in the the outlining phase, the more future you will thank you.
Writing is a balance between thought and planning and pure inspiration and flow. Finding an equilibrium between the two allows both processes to function as intended.
To find that balance, you have to do what everyone says: you must write. Feel that fear and frustration. Face the blank page. Give up. And come back.
Speed through a first draft. Let it suck.
Try to fix it. Get lost. Give up. Come back. Take a breath. Dive in a page at a time.
Try things. Keep going. And then do it again.