17 Perspectives on the Rough Draft
Each week until the end of National Novel Writing Month in November, I’m going to write about a different creativity topic related to NaNoWriMo. If you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, don’t worry: all of the topics should relate to any creative project.
Here are the first pieces in the series:
I recently gave a talk to a group of writers, and a person in the audience referred to her rough draft as a “vomit draft.” Many people use the word “vomit” to describe their rough draft, but the word has always bothered me.
I know that by vomit they mean that they’re putting it all on the page, digging deep, and that the draft is a mess by definition—that you shouldn’t look for fine prose because by its very nature, a rough draft stinks.
Except to me a rough draft, no matter how messy, never truly stinks. There are always beautiful gems to be found in it—gems of storytelling, gems of prose, and, most importantly, gems of truth.
I mentioned my distaste with vomit, and she actually sent me some great alternatives later: “word burst,” “word flurry,” and “word showers.” These all have more poetic allure to me—and they’re more accurate. I tweeted the topic, and one person offered “sugar-powered wordsplosion.” Another offtered “glitter” because “like glitter they may get everywhere and follow me wherever I go, but they’re sparkly and pretty.”
The words we use to describe our writing are important because words can determine attitudes, and if you think your draft is vomit, you’re not seeing it as something nourishing and full of possibilities.
For me, I think of the rough draft as a sandbox where I can explore and begin to shape my story. It’s where I fingerpaint. I’ve never seen a fingerpainting that wasn’t beautiful.
We all have different relationships to our rough drafts, so I’ve collected 17 quotes below for you to mull as you write your own first draft. What do you want your draft to be, vomit or a word burst or an invitation to tell your story?
“Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.”
“Be willing and unafraid to write badly, because often the bad stuff clears the way for good, or forms a base on which to build something better.”
“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”
“That 50,000-word pile I made wasn’t a mess at all. It’s some of the bravest writing I’ve ever done. NaNoWriMo helped me push past so many of my doubts and insecurities and bad habits.”
— Rainbow Rowell
“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
— Barbara Kingsolver
“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box, so that later, I can build castles.”
— Shannon Hale
“The worst unpublished novel of all time is better than the brilliant idea you have in your head. Why? Because the worst novel ever is written down. That means it’s a book, while your idea is just an idle fancy.”
— Patrick Rothfuss
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”
— William Faulkner
“I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them—without a thought about publication—and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.”
— Anne Tyler
“Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. … Until it exists, writing has not really begun.”
— John McPhee
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
“For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important. One way you get through the wall is by convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter. No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you may be agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed. … For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.”
— Neil Gaiman
“The first draft is a skeleton …. just bare bones. The rest of the story comes later with revising.”
— Judy Blume
“No one writes a good novel in a month. Good novels happen in the days, months, and years after the first draft—but I can promise you moments. Lots of little, magical storytelling moments.”
— Julie Murphy
“I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90 percent of my first drafts … so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90 percent chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway. I find this hugely liberating.”
— John Green
“The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling and tiger-trapping.”
— Ray Bradbury
“Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It’s one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period.”
— Nicholas Sparks
Because a fantastic writing conversation
I just interviewed Francesca Lia Block on a plethora of writing topics, and she had so many interesting perspectives that help with any stage of writing, but perhaps, especially the rough draft.
Because NaNoWriMo homework: Francesca’s exercise
Francesca led a short exercise during the webcast. She asked people to make a list of things they would want people to know about them after they died. What did you believe in? What was important to you?
Then, look at what you've written, and ask, are these things in your writing? Can you put more of them into your story?
Because I’d love you to read one of my books
I write this newsletter for many reasons, but mainly just for the joy of being read and having conversations with readers. This newsletter is free, and I want it to always be free, so the best way to support my work is to buy my books or hire me to speak.
Because more about me
I am the executive director of National Novel Writing Month, the co-founder of 100 Word Story, and an Executive Producer of the upcoming TV show America’s Next Great Author. I am the author of a bunch of books and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded.
My essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Lit Hub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.