Jo Eberhardt Discusses Good Reasons to Write a Bad First Draft

I would like to welcome Jo Eberhardt of The Happy Logophile as a guest blogger today.  Jo is a talented writer who blogs about writing, reading, and family.  She shares stories she’s written and inspires other writers to do the best they can with their works. 

It is with great pleasure that I introduce Jo Eberhardt as she discusses five good reasons to write a first draft badly.  Welcome, Jo!

When it comes to writing a first draft, everyone (including me) will tell you that the best way to do it is to sit down and write. Whether you’re a plotter with a 17-page outline or a pantser with a great idea and a bee in your bonnet, the advice is the same. Sit down and write.

Don’t edit. Don’t research. Don’t check your spelling or grammar. Don’t agonise over word usage. Don’t avoid adverbs, excessive adjectives, filter words, passive voice, exclamation marks, or any of the other signs-of-bad-writing you’ve heard about. Just write.

This advice isn’t new (or original). We’ve all heard it before. So why do we spend so much time doing the things we know we shouldn’t?

Maybe it’s because we secretly wonder the same thing that a non-writer friend of mine asked: “Why would you bother spending so much time on it if you’re just going to write it badly?”

The First Draft: Five Good Reasons to Write it Badly

1. Because everyone does it.

Remember when you were a kid, and your mother asked, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you follow them?” If you were like me, you said ‘Yes’ just to be contrary. But the lesson was still learned – just because other people do it doesn’t make it right, right? Uh… Not necessarily. In this case, let’s amend the questions to, “If there was a raging fire behind you, and everyone else jumped off a cliff into the safety of the water, would you follow them?”

The fact is that all authors edit, rewrite, tweak, and improve their novel after the first draft. Some start out knowing that they will write 17 drafts of their work. Others plan on three. But I’ve never heard of an author who writes a perfect first draft. If it’s good enough for Stephen King, isn’t it good enough for you?

2.  Because it’s exciting.

When you let your imagination spill out on to the page day after day, it’s a great feeling. Your word count jumps by 100, 1000, or maybe even 10,000 words, and you’re excited. So your story must be exciting, right? (Don’t think about it. Just say yes.)

Writing your first draft should feel like being in a hot, new club. At first you’re nervous: What if I don’t fit in? What if my dancing sucks? Then you have a couple of drinks, and you start to feel more comfortable. Everything feels easier. The band is playing your favourite songs, the people are attractive, and your dance moves are crazy-good. You have a few more drinks, jump on to a podium and start stripping off your clothes. The crowd goes wild. Everyone wants you. You are Legend. Sure, in the morning you’ll wake up to find you’ve slept with a cross between the abominable snowman and a tube of toothpaste, but that is then and this is now. Enjoy it while it lasts.

3. Because it gets you to the sweet spot.

Sometimes things are awkward at the beginning. You’re not sure whether things will fit properly; you’re not sure how long it’s going to last, or how good it will be. Maybe you don’t even know everyone’s name. But once you’ve got your rhythm going, none of that matters. You don’t care if your adverbs are showing, or whether it’s better for your voice to be active or passive. You’re in the moment, and you know how much you’ll enjoy the sweet, sweet climax at the end, and the pillow talk afterwards.

Do you know what happens if you stop to critique your performance halfway through? You get so focused on whether you’re doing it right, that soon you’re left with a story that’s as limp and lifeless as a…. well, use your imagination.

4. Because it’s all about the vibe.

When I’m writing highly emotional scenes, I like to use music to help me get into the mood. I turn up the volume, immerse myself in the sound, and write, write, write. Those are the times I end up crying, tears running down my face, as words of regret, pain, heartache, guilt, or grief clatter on to the page.

Don’t doubt that these feelings will make it into your final draft, although you may have to edit out pages of purple prose first. It’s so important to feel the story as well as to imagine it, and raw, exposed emotions rock.

5. Because engravings are hard to change.

Sometimes our stories surprise us. You start writing with the expectation that Bob and Jane will fall in love, only to realise halfway through the novel that Bob is as camp as a row of tents. If you’re not writing romance, that may not have a huge impact on your plot. But it will definitely have an impact of the earlier scenes you wrote where Bob was espousing the virtues of titty bars.

The fact is that if you’ve been editing as you go, it’s easy to feel that your earlier chapters are done. Finito. Perfect. You’ve marked out the lines, grabbed a chisel, and engraved those babies into stone. So you’re, understandably, more reluctant to make changes. Don’t make it harder on yourself than you have to – leave the editing until the end.

16 thoughts on “Jo Eberhardt Discusses Good Reasons to Write a Bad First Draft

  1. Nicely argued, Jo. I have always been an edit-as-I-go girl, but I have lately come around to the mindset of type-like-the-wind-and-let-the-words-fall-where-they-may. I think it’s essential for me to approach the first draft this way in order to have any chance of actually finishing it.

    Here’s a pet theory I’ve been honing for the past week or so. A lot of writers would probably compare writing the first draft to a sculptor beginning to work with a blob of clay. I believe that’s a dangerously misleading analogy, because it encourages an expectation that the first draft will look roughly the way the writer envisioned it.

    In fact, writing a first draft is nothing like shaping a lump of clay. Writing a first draft is the process of MANUFACTURING the clay, which the writer will then proceed to shape and sculpt in subsequent drafts.

    Looking at the first draft from this perspective has given me the courage to ignore awkward sentences, repetitious wording, boring narrative, etc., in the name of “making the clay.” I can forgive the fact that as I delve into the murky middle section of my story, I’m forgoing some style points in favor of just hitting the plot marks, because I know that I will have a better vantage point for shaping the story once I have a completed first lump of clay.

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    1. “In fact, writing a first draft is nothing like shaping a lump of clay. Writing a first draft is the process of MANUFACTURING the clay, which the writer will then proceed to shape and sculpt in subsequent drafts.”

      Wonderfully worded, Leanne. I couldn’t agree more with that statement. 🙂

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  2. Pingback: Writing a First Draft | The Happy Logophile

  3. Great post, Jo! I love the hot club analogy and the related fears and questions we ask ourselves when facing the blank page.

    I have to admit I’ve been editing my rough draft this week, but it’s been more about remembering where I’ve been than fixing sentences. I’m up to page 250–no wonder I needed to review what’s happened! And yes, even though I have been editing, I’d definitely consider this mini-pass a review, because I totally agree with how overcrafting each word causes false confidence. If we get used to how our sentences sound, or worse, fall in love with the sound, it’s so much harder to decide what belongs and what needs to go.

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  4. Ooh, you make it sound exactly as sexy as it is! I wrote an opening for something today and it was soooooo hot! It’s not perfect, but it’s a story, and I’m the person reading it for its very first time.

    And, to answer your friend, we write it crappy because that’s the only way we can. I’d gladly skip steps if I could, but it might involve bartering for my soul.

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  5. “Sure, in the morning you’ll wake up to find you’ve slept with a cross between the abominable snowman and a tube of toothpaste” While we have been allowing FB, I would like to LOL that comment. Jo, very well written. Great with the parables and very good points for writing. I don’t have time to write anything, although, sometimes I wish I did. For me it is only writing posts, and for the lack of time, I must edit as I go. Nice.

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  6. I just got some good feedback on the new first chapter of my WIP. I am resisting going back and rewriting it (even apart from the fact that there’s more feedback coming), and instead continuing to write chapter two. Rewrites can come later.

    Also, as I commented somewhere else recently, there are those times that the first draft is actually good, that you got into a good groove the first time around, and you need to take time to appreciate that rather than jumping in too quickly to “improve” things.

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    1. I agree, Anthony. It’s important to appreciate your writing as well as “improve” it later on. If you focus too much on the bad, it’s easy to lose your self-confidence. Without the self-confidence, I know I would just give up on writing. I’m not the most self-confident person when it comes to my writing, and as the saying goes, “I’m my own worst critic.” But, I still like enough of my writing to see that it gets finished and improved upon later. 🙂

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  7. Pingback: More on Good Reasons to Write a Bad First Draft | Emerald Barnes' Dreaming Awake Blog

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