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.

13 comments:

Kami said...

I love this new angle on first drafts. I'm going to share this post with my writing group. I hope that is okay. I'm struggling with giving myself permission to write crap. It is hard. I want it to come out perfect the first time! This helped me though. Thanks!

Suey said...

Well said! I will embrace my mess!

Alethearia Moon said...

I really needed to hear this. I've been going through a messy, crazy editing phase lately and it's been driving me crazy because the first draft was such a horrible hot mess or raw bursting emotion. (No seriously, I wrote pretty much the whole thing listening to a combination of Florence and The Machine, and cyr-your-eyes-out production music.) I really needed to hear this. Thank you.

Ellie Garratt said...

I agree! Learn to love the mess, because out of it comes a thing of beauty.

Karen M Krueger said...

I have to say though...your first drafts are still stinking amazing! :-) Seriously, I'm ten chapters in & still wondering what I'm going to say to critique it ;-)

Taffy said...

Ahha moment! Thanks, Shallee!

MKHutchins said...

Amen! My first drafts are always a horrible mess.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

It's encouraging to read posts like this one, especially because I struggle with my first drafts; when I first started writing fiction years ago, I rarely finished my stories because I couldn't get through the first draft. But now it's easier to write the first draft, because it doesn't have to be perfect.

Tanya Lynne Reimer said...

I keep reminding myself of this. Not so easy when you know what should come out and yet it just doesn't want to get there. Grr...

Nice to know I'm not alone and there is hope.

Royce A Ratterman said...

Yes, I prefer to "get the story out" in my first draft as fast as it flows on its own.

During those in-between times I may have a flash thought that makes me go back and change something.

The more one writes and gets used to 'their style' of putting the pen to the paper, the easier it gets to have thoughts flow more clearly. I enjoy editing after the first draft.

Great post! Thanks!

Brent Wescott said...

I keep thinking: you wrote out The End at the end of all your stories? That must be kind of liberating. No need to revise, then. :)

Hi again, Shallee.

Intisar Khanani said...

This was just the post I needed to read today. :) I've got an incredibly messy first draft that I've been needing to revise, and I keep stalling out on the revisions ... because the heart of the story is still developing. I need to go ahead and be messy for a little while longer, explore it and laugh and cry, and then think about revision again. So thank you for this post, in this moment.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I have often said that I don't really figure out the real story until I finish the first draft. But I usually say that AFTER I've completed the first draft AND found the story.

While I'm struggling through the first draft, it is SO EASY to forget that's how it works. I begin to think that no first draft was ever as hard as this one.

I forget that they all were. :)

 
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