Why a First Draft SHOULD be Messy

Jul 8, 2014

There was once a time when ALL I wrote were first drafts. Lots and lots of delightful, horrible first drafts that I signed off as finished once I found the proper flourishing font for the words THE END. Obviously, I eventually learned that a first draft is only the first step. I also eventually learned to love revisions—that glorious time when I can take the words I said and turn them into the words I meant to say.

And most recently, I worked on a first draft that made me want to bang my head into the wall. I can quite honestly say it’s been the hardest first draft I’ve ever written, and it took me a while to figure out why. See, I’m a planner. I like structure. I like organization. It’s why I like revision so much. This first draft was even more of a disaster than my others—at least when it came to being organized in any way.

We hear all the time that first drafts are messy. They’re sandboxes, or piles of &$%* , or whatever metaphor conveys the image of…a mess. We try to believe it, but we don’t always love that that’s the way it is. But writing this first draft, I realized why first drafts are messy—and why they very, very much need to be that way.

A first draft is about getting out the heart of the story. And hearts are messy places.

I have a lot of emotion tied to this particular story. I suppose that’s true of any story, but with this one there are issues tied to my heart that I’ve been truly wrestling with. So of course I’ve been wrestling with the story. It’s tried to come out as about three or four completely different stories, and none of them were right. The act of writing out the story was me trying to communicate things I felt, but even I wasn’t sure how I felt about these things, so I wasn’t sure what story I was trying to tell.

You want to know what’s cool, though? I did find the story. It took months. It took stripping away a lot of the trappings. It took changing my perspective on the things I was feeling. It took writing a story that flailed all over the place for me to find the actual core of what I was trying to say, and to understand that core myself. And this disaster of a first draft turned into something heart-driven.

Which is exactly what a book should be. The method and the craft comes into a story during revisions, but the heart is often what comes out when we allow ourselves to put our messy selves onto the page with no restraint. So that disaster of a story you’re working on, or have worked on, or will work on?

It’s exactly what it should be. A raw, beautiful, honest mess.

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