What To Do With a Shitty First Draft

One of the reasons I write this blog dispensing unqualified [1] and unsolicited writing advice is that I’ve learned much more from my struggling peers than I have from successful writers, so I’m returning the favor. Learn from my pain! You should, of course, take everything my amateur self says with a healthy does of NaCl, but if you find yourself in the same mess I’m in, something I say may resonate with you.

Take, for example, the agonizing process of editing or rewriting. Here’s Stephen King’s take:

“2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.”

This is from his (otherwise excellent) On Writing. [2] He helpfully includes a sample from one of his short stories—“1408,” about a haunted hotel room—in which he shows his markup of the original manuscript. Sure enough, he makes some significant improvements, most of which reduce the length of the starting prose. King’s writing process looks something like this:

  • 1. Get an idea for a story or novel
  • 2. Write a near-publishable first draft
  • 3. Edit lightly for length and style
  • 4. Profit!

Here’s the thing: no would-be writer I know would struggle with Step 3 (or Step 1, for that matter). King’s edits are mostly along the lines of changing a long name to a shorter one, cutting a stray word or two, and trimming some internal monologue. If you handed me a King-quality first draft, I’m sure I could spiff it up into something presentable. It’s Step 2 that’s the bitch, and one that King provides precious little insight into achieving. [3] Here’s how his advice reads to me:

  • 1. Get an idea for a story or novel
  • 2. Be Stephen King
  • 3. Blast out 2,000 words a day of polished prose that only requires light editing
  • 4. Profit!

King is one of the genre-fiction greats, but because he’s so damn good, he has a hard time providing useful advice to writers not at his level.

Assuming you’re not King, what you likely have at the end of National Novel Writing Month is not a near-publishable manuscript but an unholy agglomeration of false starts, flabby middle and incoherent or missing ending. [4] Trying to “lightly edit” this mess is going to be an exercise in turd polishing. Line edits are not going to get you where you need to go. Sure, you could make it ten percent shorter, but that’s not the problem, is it?

So what do you do?

First, recognize that it’s probably not actually a first draft at all. Once you abandon that conceit, you can look on your manuscript as a raw material, ripe for salvage. Tear through it looking for anything good—a line, a scene, a character, a moment of foreshadowing—that you can use as a nucleus for the next draft.

I was fortunate enough to attend a short screenwriting workshop with Steven de Souza, an uneven but spectacularly successful screenwriter whose films have grossed more than $2 billion at the box office. He’s responsible for, among others, Die Hard and 48 Hours (but also Street Fighter and Hudson Hawk).

de Souza fully embraces the notion of the shitty first draft, and his revision process is similar to what I’ve just described. Rather than trying to polish his first draft, he scans through it for anything that he likes, no matter how small. Sometimes, he says, that’ll just be a single line of dialog. Sometimes, hopefully, more. He’ll circle those and move on to an entirely new draft, abandoning everything else but trying to integrate those elements he liked from the first draft. And repeat, and repeat, and repeat.

There’s another writer, whose name escapes me at the moment, who’s even more aggressive than that. As soon as they finish their first draft, they pitch it in the trash—without even reading it—and immediately sit down to write the second draft. The “first draft” is more of an exploration of the story space than an actual draft to build on. Once they’ve finished it, they know the story they want to write, and roughly how to do it. They sit down and write that.

That’s how I treat my NaNo projects now. Not as legitimate first drafts but as extended free writes about a story. I have an idea, but I’m not sure how it works or who my cast is. So I write. And because of the time pressure of NaNo, I’m forced to keep writing, even when I’m not sure. I generate material, most of it bad, but some of it surprisingly good. And when I’m through, I have a better sense of the story I’m trying to write and how that might be done. At that point, I’m ready to make a proper outline and write a real first draft.


1. I have a Master’s degree in Creative Writing but am, essentially, unpublished (a handful of short stories and articles)—which makes me the worst sort of person to hand out writing advice—an academic. That’s one of the things I love about the Stonecoast program—the faculty are all professional, working writers. In PopFic (my track), that included folks like Nancy Holder, James Patrick Kelly, David Anthony Durham and Elizabeth Hand.

Sidebar: the fact that there is a PopFic track is one of the other major reasons I love Stonecoast.

2. Adding insult to injury, King says, “I’m hopeful that you’ll see how raw the first-draft work of even a so-called ‘professional writer’ is once you really examine it.” Come on, Steve. My eyes are rolling in their sockets at your false modesty. On Writing is one of my favorite craft books, but it’s more inspirational than actionable.

3. Okay, Step 4 is a bitch too, but if that’s truly your roadblock (and not Step 2), you’re at a different level, and I have no advice for you.

4. I’m assuming here that you’ve been “pantsing,” or at best “plantsing,” which is to say, writing by the seat of your pants (or falling somewhere between plotting and pantsing) and not from a detailed outline. If you have a detailed outline, then it’s entirely possible to write a coherent first draft in 30 days. John Scalzi wrote The Consuming Fire in two weeks, under deadline pressure, but only after thinking about it very hard for eighteen months. Rachel Aaron wrote a novel from a detailed outline in just 12 days, start to finish (here’s her tips on how to do that).

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