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The First Draft—What it is and What it isn’t

on January 23rd, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on January 23, 2011

For first-time novelists, the first draft is the culmination of a dream or long-sought goal. It’s the biggie, the quest undertaken and achieved. Conquered, even. Many first-time writers also assume that the first draft is the only draft, that they are done writing when they’ve put together a story opening, a middle filled with action, and an ending that shows the main character at some concluding point.

Writers who’ve never studied craft, never attended classes, may have no idea how much more there is to a novel than the relatively simple(?) act of getting it down on paper.

Often, no thought is given to assessment, the evaluation and judging of the story and its elements. No thought given to tightening and refining plot, to the strengths or inconsistencies of characterization, syntax, or dialogue.

If you’ve never gone beyond the dream stage of wanting to write a novel, how could you possibly know there was more to it, more than just writing the idea that’s in your head? If the goal has been to write the story, that’s been the focus.

The truth, however, is that there is much more to writing than simply penning the first draft.

Yet, writing the first draft is crucial. Without it, there’s nothing to build on. Nothing to perfect.

But there is so much more.

Rather than delve into what happens after the first draft is written, this article takes a look at the first draft itself. What it is, what it isn’t. What’s in it and what’s not.

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What it is and what it isn’t

A first draft isn’t the one a writer submits to an agent or publisher.

A first draft is a skeleton, a foundation, a beginning. It is not a finished product. Not only isn’t it polished, but it most likely lacks supports that give it strength, that allow it to take on the weight of all the elements the writer has piled on.

A first draft is typically not great storytelling.

A first draft, especially the first first draft, is a milestone worth celebrating.

A first draft doesn’t have

  • a fully formulated theme
  • layers and depth
  • tight threads that resist unraveling
  • pacing that enhances the story
  • fully formed characters with motivations strong enough to drive the story
  • story-specific words that keep readers anchored to this story
  • enough conflict
  • an inevitable ending

A first draft does have

  • a tantalizing hint of the final product
  • bloat
  • some super-fine writing and phrases—words that may or may not make it into the final draft
  • plot inconsistencies
  • info dumps
  • too many characters
  • too much back story
  • weak dialogue
  • moments of great beauty
  • an insufficient resolution
  • dangling plot threads
  • characters with unclear motivations
  • cliches, saidisms, annoying repetition
  • poor grammar

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I hope the reality of what the first draft is doesn’t discourage you from working on that second draft. And beyond that, to the sixth or seventh or tenth. There is no perfect first draft. Novels are too full and rich and complex for a writer to include every element in the proper proportion in a single pass. It’s impossible to layer elements and plot and character motivation in chapter four when the layers you intend to add haven’t yet been imagined, when what gives those layers power comes from a plot point, one in chapter twelve, that you haven’t yet written.

Celebrate the completion of the first draft. Actually, celebrate each step of the writing process if it’s your first manuscript. Then tackle the tough stuff, the rewriting and undoing and fixing.

Writing a novel, a story others will enjoy reading and one you’ll want to put in their hands, is more than a labor of love. It’s more than penning a first draft, more than moving unfocused ideas from mind to page or computer screen. Writing a novel is toil and inspiration and days of frustration. It’s work. It’s sometimes fun. It’s rewarding, it’s taxing, and it’s draining.

It’s also a grand achievement, a testament to creativity and perseverance. An endeavor I hope you’ll complete many times in the course of your career.

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4 Responses to “The First Draft—What it is and What it isn’t”

  1. ~Sia McKye~ says:

    Boy that’s the truth, Beth. As a writer I want it perfect the first time, darn it. But when I let myself get entangled with that idea I run into problems. One of which is it stops the flow for the rest of the story. I’ve learned through the school of very hard knocks to get the first draft down and to hell with perfection. It’s still a battle though. Must lock my inner editor in the dungeon to achieve it. :-)

  2. We all want that perfection, Sia. But because of the great number of elements involved, there is no way for that to happen. Even the most detailed of plotters has to go back to tie together threads and emphasize some items and reduce the emphasis on others. When the changing of one word can alter the tone of a scene, can send a story in a new direction, we’ve got to know that we can’t possibly get it all right in one pass. That would have to mean that every word choice was perfect, every action scene just the right length, each section of dialogue pitch perfect.

    Instead, we’ve got to edit and manipulate and play. Our fifth draft may be so different from the first that only the title is the same. But the story may now be the one ready for the public and the notice of the New York Times Book Review.

    I look at rewrites as a taming of the unruly. Leave enough wildness to flavor the story. But clean it up enough that readers don’t get lost in—or disgusted by—the mess.

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