Monday, January 18, 2010

Jacobsen on Bad First Drafts

Roy Jacobsen of Writing, Clear and Simple muses over the need to write, er, less-than-stellar first drafts. Excerpts:
I don't like crappy first drafts. I want my first draft to be good, so that maybe it can be my final draft. But that never works. First drafts are just crappy, so I should quit wasting time editing myself as I write, trying to make it good right off the bat, or at least not-crap. Editing while you write is a waste of time and emotional energy. (Maybe it would help if I had a special "first draft" keyboard with the backspace key yanked off with a pair of pliers.)

I'm not alone in bemoaning the quality of my first drafts. Ernest Hemingway did, too, except he used a stronger word than "crap" ...
Read the whole thing. I stopped composing first drafts on computer long ago, mainly because it's so easy to consign hours of work to the electronic void with the pressing of a few buttons. As Jacobsen says, ugly initial attempts are just part of this writing enterprise. So I keep a three-inch stack of scrap paper near my desk, orphaned printouts and old blog articles and even a few first drafts themselves. No one cares if you fill a few pages with incoherent chicken scratch before consigning it to the round filing bin. The freedom to fail on such a humble medium is liberating -- or should be. My perfectionistic mind still requires fresh convincing each and every time I pick up the pen.

(Picture: CC 2006 by
Lawrence Whittemore)


S.D. Smith said...

Oh, how I relate.

If it were possible to skip first drafts I would. But alas.

Loren Eaton said...

I'm in the middle (or, rather, the beginning) of one right now. It has filled me with fear and loathing of my own incompetency -- just like they all do.

C. N. Nevets said...

I haven't written a true first draft in, I don't know how long. Sometimes I draft something out by hand, but I've gotta admit that stuff rarely needs much editing (beyond proofing). When I do my writing on the computer, I'm a huge revise-as-you-go person. I re-read constantly and edit and revise before going on at a rate that would probably drive most authors batty. It's how I write papers, too. I'm a terrible example to learn by in that regard.

Loren Eaton said...

Sometimes I draft something out by hand, but I've gotta admit that stuff rarely needs much editing (beyond proofing).

Proof of my writing inadequacy grows. I'm going to go wallow in despair now, KTHXBY!

B. Nagel said...

My first drafts take place on the computer or out in the workroom on an electric typewriter. Never by hand. Illegibility being the main complaint, followed closely by speed. I think much faster than my hand can jot. That means I begin to explore ideas and then abandon them just as my writing starts.

I wonder what storylines and character development I'm missing by using that backspace key.

C. N. Nevets said...

Writing by hand hurts like all heck after only a few sentences, so when I take the time to draft something out that way, even though my brain moves faster than my hand, my brain seems to know that it better make it worth my while.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Since I consistently rewrite I am not sure what a first draft is. That doesn't mean that my eighth draft is any good, of course.

Unknown said...

I've had to write by hand a lot recently, since my job doesn't allow me to transfer files in any way between my computer and home. It DOES hurt, a lot. I have to stop regularly and rest my wrist, and I get twinges for hours after the day is over. Plus, I've noticed my "first drafts" now do indeed suck a whole lot, because like Monsieur Nevets I tend to revise actively as I go, sometimes deleting entire paragraphs to come at the problem from another angle if my initial approach isn't heading the way I want. It's unbelievably frustrating not to be able to reword as my eyes scan back over what I've written, let alone my almost illegible handwriting (which has always been atrocious and borderline dysgraphic.)

One of the bits of writing 'wisdom' that has always stuck in my head was, "A true writer would revise a sentence in his suicide note, if it was a poor sentence." I'm always listening to what I write as I write it and altering as I go. One of the reasons I do Mirrorshards is to keep me in practice with actual rereading and revising, since I can't count the words as I write and thus can't follow my normal pattern of revising everything as I type it out.

Loren Eaton said...


Slowing me down is actually one of the reasons I like writing by hand. I have a tendency to jump three sentences ahead -- while ignoring the sentence I'm currently working on. Makes for some frustration. Paper keeps me on track.

Loren Eaton said...


One can always do a few reps on the Harbinger Strengthening Grip.

(See those little weight bars on the thing? I swear, you can buy anything on Amazon.)

Feel the burn, baby!

Loren Eaton said...


At the risk of sounding like a flatterer, I'm guessing your eighth drafts are pretty darn good; I have read your stuff.

Loren Eaton said...


To get far more specific than anyone probably wants me to, I like to alternate between notepad and computer. I scratch out a couple paragraph, type them into Word and repeat. It establishes a rhythm, lets me edit and keeps me from deleting it all during a fit of despair.

One of the bits of writing 'wisdom' that has always stuck in my head was, "A true writer would revise a sentence in his suicide note, if it was a poor sentence."

This is awesome. I'm going to steal it.

Unknown said...

It was from a Roger Zelazny essay on writing called "Six Reflexes" with bits and bobs of advice on writing stories. I wish I could remember what collection it's from; I've mangled the wording, and I think he was quoting a third party anyway.

Zelazny's advice has always seemed extremely sound to me, anyway.

Loren Eaton said...

Zelazny's a funny guy. I really need to read more of his stuff.