Hemingway said it best: “The first draft of anything is shit.” As writers, we know first drafts are unfit for human consumption. But if we’re honest, that’s how we feel about other writers’ first drafts. We may have doubts about our first draft, but under the doubt is the conviction that our first draft is worth sharing, either because we’ve achieved what no other writer has—first draft perfection—or we’re so excited about our story we’re eager to share it. We’ll bestow it on anyone who will read it, especially our captive critique partners or writing group. But the truth is writers can’t dodge a rough first draft and having others read something before it’s ready leads to manuscript anarchy.
Column by Dawne Webber, author of YA contemporary fiction. She is
represented by Steven Chudney of The Chudney Agency. Her debut
manuscript is on submission. She is the PAL (Published and Listed)
Coordinator for SCBWI-Michigan and a contributor to the blog All the
Way YA. Dawne lives in Troy with her husband and five children. They
keep her sane amid the insanity of writing. Connect with Dawne at her
website or on Twitter.
I’m one of those unsuspecting writers that fell into the first draft trap. Over a period of a few months, I shared the first draft chapters of my then work-in-progress. The staggering number of ideas, suggestions and criticisms overwhelmed me. I slogged through the confusion and finally finished the manuscript. It now resides in novel limbo, clocking in at 150,000 words (double the acceptable word count for the genre). The plot meanders and the ending is weak. It’s a hot mess. And I know it’s because I allowed outside influences to shape the novel before I shaped it.
If you’re itching to share a first draft, consider the following:
- First impressions are hard to shake. A first draft—even if it’s not awful—exposes others to your writing at its worst. When later drafts are completed, and you realize how much they’ve improved over the first, you’ll regret sharing what now seems substandard.
- Piggy-backing on that point, many times, readers are only willing to read one or two drafts, and you want to make sure they’re exposed to your best writing not your worst.
- No matter how much you plot and plan, you won’t fully know the story or characters until you’ve written a few drafts. Stories have a life of their own and lead to places the writer hadn’t imagined (that’s part of the joy of the craft). But if it’s shared before it has evolved as far as the writer can take it, too many opinions will drag it into obscure directions and bastardize it from its true self.
- An honest critique of a first draft can be quite discouraging. If a writer’s confidence in the story is badly shaken, it may end up in the abandoned idea graveyard.
It’s difficult not to share something you’re so invested in and enthusiastic about. Be strong. You’ll survive. Sometimes, not sharing a first draft means you won’t have anything to submit to your critique partner or writing group for a long time. That’s okay. They’ll survive. One day, the story germinating inside will thank you for not stunting its growth.
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