First draft blues

In the words of the mighty, oft-quoted Chuck Wendig:

Taken from How Chuck Wendig Edits a Novel. Go read it.

Trouble is, I find it difficult to let shitty words lie.

This is a scenario surely experienced by many (I’ll dare to say most) writers:

  • You sit down to write, and you do. A thousand words knocked out in an hour, a good wee session.
  • However, those words are awful. Bland prose littered with errors, not evocative in the slightest and groaning with the weight of the subtext ‘THIS IS TERRIBLE WRITING’.
  • So you rewrite. You sit down and go line by line, fixing the awful. Sentences are chopped, changed, thrown out and replaced with more interesting imagery and wordplay.
  • Eventually, you arrive at around 750 words of passable – not great, just passable – writing.

Of course, what you’ve done here isn’t writing, it’s rewriting. It’s editing. In the time that you have spent knocking that one scene into shape, you could have forged ahead with the story, churning out another two or three scenes of mediocre-to-terrible writing that gets you closer to having a completed draft.Which is, obviously, what you should be doing. Write first, edit later, is the rule espoused by the majority of writers.

(I seem to recall reading that Terry Pratchett writes by getting a scene down, then returning to the scene the next day, reads though and tweaks things, then heads on to the second scene. He’ll then return the next day, start reading from the beginning again, tweak and edit up the point he left last time, and rinse and repeat. If anyone knows if this is true or false, speak up.)

The trouble, of course, is that it is so very hard to leave bad writing on the page. At least, it is for me. I try, I really do, to forge ahead, not looking back up the page at the dross I have just put forth, but it’s difficult not to. This leads to frustration, which leads to alt-tabbing to check Facebook or somesuch under the guise of ‘refreshing my thoughts.’

I chalk it up primarily to a lack of discipline – a writer, to be deserving of such a title, has to be able to sit his or her ass down and actually put words to page, daily, regardless of quality. Quality, as the rather cool graphic above says, comes second.

Editing is the easy part. It is for me, anyway, and I suspect that is the case for the majority of people. Oh, editing down to fit a word count is a bit different, I’ll grant you, but with every single thing I’ve written, once I return to a completed piece of work and edit the process is much, much easier. I fidget less, I alt-tab to a game or the news far less frequently, and I’m more satisfied with what I have at the end of the day.

The hard part is getting that first draft done – draft zero, and the Wendingo puts it – the first run through that you know is awful, but you do it because that is where the nuts and bolts of discipline lie. The ability to say ‘yep, that’s naff, but it’s done. Now let’s move on’. And then, hopefully, as stories are finished and voice is found, making that first draft a little better.

One thing at a time, though.


As you may have picked up, this is something of a procrastination blog post. I’m grappling with the start of a new story that is, predictably, very hard going. So, I shall get back to it, but I would like to invite you to share your ways of getting past the ‘draft zero’ slump.

Seriously, do share, because I’ve got bupkis.