The Trouble With First Drafts - Ron Delaney

This blog is written by a friend I met at a writing conference. He is currently writing high concept, middle grade fantasy. Good stuff. We regularly read and critique each other's work, and his input makes my writing better, no question. (I hope he feels the same!) When I read his post about writing a first draft, it resonated immediately. I am currently writing the first draft of my second book and, while some things have gotten easier, it is still a labor of love. Emphasis on labor. It's nice to know I'm not alone in my creative struggle! You can follow Ron on twitter @RonDelaneyJr and check out his blog "Ron Writes Stuff" at His Friday Morning FYI's are worth the follow! 

I believe with all my heart the most important thing about writing a novel is completing the first draft.

It’s just math. It doesn’t matter how great or original your idea is. A great, original idea does not equal a book. It doesn’t matter how long your outline is. An outline does not equal a book. You have to complete that first draft. A first draft is a book, albeit (for many of us) a bad book, but a book nonetheless. Or manuscript, if you prefer. Then you do a ton of editing to make it a good book, or even a great book. If you’d like to see it spelled out, here are some formulas (to keep the whole math theme going):

no first draft = no book

first draft = book

(first draft + editing) = second draft = better book

(second draft + A LOT of editing) = next draft = good book 

Simple? Good. But that brings me to a unexpected problem…

I assumed (yes, I know) that as I developed as a writer, completing a first draft would get easier. I mean, the more you do something, the better you get at it, right? Writing should be no different.

(more writing) = increased skill = faster, easier first drafts 

But I’ve found the opposite to be true.

I’m currently working on a first draft, and while it’s coming along nicely, I can’t say it’s easier to write than the first drafts for either of my other two books. In fact, I’m finding it more difficult than my first (the other having been done at the speed of crazy during NaNoWriMo). The above formula doesn’t work.

In pondering this, I arrived at several possible answers:

Writing never gets easier – I think this is only partially true. I’m not saying that after a book or two you’ll be able to bang out quality first drafts in a week (though some writers are so gifted), I’m saying you should get to a point where you’ve refined your process enough to be able to work faster and with less stress than when you started writing.

You didn’t learn anything from your earlier efforts – People from all walks of life do this every day. They struggle through something, get it done, and the next time struggle through again rather than analyzing what could be done better. Example: If you’re wrestling with character inconsistencies in your first draft, you’ve probably had that problem before. Did you do anything to address that before you started your new book?

You’ve forgotten what a first draft is – What does that mean? It means you’re too focused on making the first draft as good as an edited version, rather than focusing on getting it written. See, the partner idea to ‘Complete your first draft’ is ‘Don’t focus on making it good–that’s what editing is for’. If you write a paragraph and then spend more than a minute tweaking it, you’re editing. Why is this a problem (at least for me)? Because you’re going to have to edit the first draft later anyway. Why not just get the whole thing written first? (note – I’m not saying you put garbage on the page just to have something there. That’s a different problem.)

After some consideration, I realized I was doing the editing thing. A lot. And I know why: it’s because I jumped right into this project after completing extensive, months-long edits on another book. That one I wrote with little sense of what was good and what was bad, and just put one word down after another. Then I went back and made it better. And better. And… you get the idea. And that book is something I’m quite pleased with. So now, after so much time polishing text instead of writing, when working on the new manuscript my brain doesn’t want to leave an unpolished sentence on the page.

Oh, brain, you wonderful devil!

Since recognizing what I was doing, my productivity is way up (eight-thousand words this week, and it’s only Thursday!), and the extra editing is way down.

What a wonderful thing creativity is. And self-examination, too.

So, to sum up: Finishing your first draft should be you’re number one goal, but that won’t necessarily get easier over time. Awareness of bad habits can help keep you on track, though. (And no, I'm not claiming I'm breaking new ground, here. Just relaying personal experience.)

tl;dnr version: Stop editing and finish that first draft :)

Thanks for reading,