It Doesn’t Have to Be Good, It Just Has to BE

I’m a firm believer that the first draft of a manuscript does not need to be good. It just has to BE. A first draft is not the time to agonize over le mot juste, or try to come up with perfect descriptions of character and scenery. An ideal first draft is messy, overwritten, self-indulgent, and unfocused. If you’re having trouble finishing your first draft, adopt the following as your new motto: This does not need to be good. It just has to be.

You can add great, witty dialogue. Later. You can add great descriptions of the locations. Later. You can add beautiful, lyrical style. Later. I realized this in the process of writing my novel, THIS BURNS MY HEART. The very first draft I wrote and the last draft I turned in to my editor were substantially different. With each set of revisions, I added something new: more historical details, more fleshed out secondary characters, more precise and poetic images, better pacing.

That is the privilege we have as writers, which actors and other artists don’t have: we can change our work in progress over and over and over again, until it is great. This means we’re not limited to a single day’s inspiration, but rather inspiration from years and years. This means we’re not limited to a single day’s brain power, but our brain power from years and years. We can multiply our talent, skill, and intelligence by a thousand, just by virtue of going back to it over and over again. We can also benefit from the brainpower of our friends, by getting feedback from the best minds around us.

Judging the quality of a first draft (especially an ongoing first draft) is absolutely foolish and a waste of time. It is like a choreographer looking at his dance on the first hour of rehearsal–before the dancers know all the moves–and deciding that his work is bad. Just the fact that the chapter exists should be a cause for celebration. Each 10,000 word mark should be considered a victory. Finishing the novel means you got through the hardest part!

That’s why I think of a first draft as merely a skeleton–a blueprint to be improved upon. There’s no reason to worry about making it good. A first draft doesn’t need to be good. It just has to BE.

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3 thoughts on “It Doesn’t Have to Be Good, It Just Has to BE

  1. Court Ellyn says:

    This is refreshing to read. So many of our beginning writers at our online community post first drafts of their novel chapters for critiques, often before the novels are even finished. I worry about giving my opinion on quality and try to encourage them to just finish the project before they worry about details. They’re often too enthusiastic to listen, which is understandable.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Ariel Lawhon says:

    Just so you know, I’ve read this post four times in the last three weeks. I am working on the first draft of my second novel and to say that I’m limping along would be generous.

    But your words give me courage. Thank you.

  3. Samuel Park says:

    Thank you, Court Ellyn! You are awesome.

    @Ariel Lawhon–I LOVE that it’s been helpful! Best of luck with the draft!

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