Of all the bits of writing wisdom paraded in front of young writers, none are taken as seriously these days as “Every first draft is shit!” and “Never edit as you write!” This may be because these mantras—unlike the vague calls to “write what you know” or “kill your darlings”—have concrete instructions attached: vomit out your first draft as quickly as possible without any revision or editing. Only then, after wiping the words “the end” off your chin, may you edit.

This week Thought Catalog repeated this dogma in a piece called “The Big Mistake Every Beginning Writer Makes.”Never edit as you write” is the most important rule, the author Michael Malice says.

“Editing should be done…not in chunks, but from start to end. No one has a good first draft, let alone a great one. But I’d rather have a crappy, sloppy first draft of a manuscript than, say, fifty perfectly edited pages.”

I don’t mean to single this piece out—there are a million similar articles online—but since this advice is basically dogma in our NaNoWriMo-crazed literary culture, I want to offer a different point of view. Before arguing that this advice is not only not the most important advice, but actively harmful to many writers, let me say that I do agree with the underlying message that writers need to finish things. Plenty of writers fail because they simply give up part way through, whether while writing or editing.

Does anyone ever have a good first draft? There are many famous examples of works written in basically a single session. (In fact, my favorite short story ever, “The Judgment” by Franz Kafka, is one of them.) Virtually every story needs revision, but many writers complete drafts that are close to being done because they revise as they go.

Part of the issue, though, is the very concept of a “draft.”

Many young writers have this idealized image of a writer sitting down and knocking out a story from start to finish (rough draft). Then they pop open a red pen and edit from start to finish (first draft). This repeats (second draft, third, fourth, etc.) until the story is plopped in the mail and the author goes and drowns themselves in sorrow and whiskey at the nearest dive bar.

Some writers do this, especially the last bit, but in my experience the writing and editing processes are far more chaotic that this. A writer jots down a scene in a notebook. A few days later they write down an idea for an ending. They spend a day at the coffee shop working on opening lines. They tweak the opening, finish everything except the last paragraph, which comes to them a week later. The point is that the “first” draft includes sections that have been edited and revised many times. Not only are not all first drafts shit, but most of the time a “first” draft doesn’t actually exist, at least in the sense that many young writers take it to mean.

So why is “never edit while you write” bad advice? There are two reasons:

1) The first is that writers often look for problems that aren’t there. The idea that “first drafts are shit” makes them think that they must make radical edits to every piece they write. Surely there are a multitude of darlings that need murdering in there!

While under editing work is certainly a problem, it is also a problem to over edit it. You do not want to take your beautiful weirdo monster and defang it, clean it, and trim its fur until it looks like every other brown rodent in the park.

2) The second, and more common, issue is that the puke-up-a-draft-then-polish-polish-polish method can leave you with an unfixable draft.

The Thought Catalog article uses the metaphor of climbing a mountain: “Editing while you write is like climbing down the mountain as you try to reach the summit. Get the job done first, and only then should you try to go back.”

This metaphor would make sense if there was one peak you were reaching, but in fact there are near infinite peaks you might end up on. Each path you take—choices of voice, structure, character, setting, etc.—alters your destination. Thinking of it that way, is it so crazy to take out a map and backtrack if you realize you are going the wrong way?

A better metaphor might be building a house. When you build, you want your foundation to be as strong as possible or else everything else is going to be warped and ready to collapse. Sure, it’s possible to just slap up a structure as quickly as possible with whatever materials are around, and replace every single thing piece by piece, but it’s going to take a lot more work. And, frankly, you are going to be a lot more likely to say, “Fuck it, who cares if the floor is at a 20° angle and the toilet is connected to the oven? Let’s call it a day.”

If you are writing a horror story about two brothers living on Mars with a robotic chimpanzee, and realize early on that the story should really be a comedy set in a submarine with an ghost shark, it’s going to be much easier to fix at page 10 than page 100. If you get to the end, how likely is it that you will actually change Mars to the Atlantic and Dr. Weebles into Dark Tooth, the hammerhead poltergeist doomed to roam the sea until the mystery of his death is solved?

And those joke elements may be easier to fix than issues of structure or voice where you might literally need to rewrite every word. The most common roadblock to revising I see is a writer not wanting to throw away the things—voice, characters, setting, plot—that they’ve spent so long on even when they know it’s not working. It’s a form of the sunk cost fallacy. Human instinct is to make what you have work.

The Gordon Lish school of writing believes that your work should constantly pull from and build on the text already on the page. The elements on language in your very first line should resonate through the whole text. Even if you don’t take it to that extreme, good writing is an interconnected whole with the elements constantly playing off each other.

This is not to say that you should spend your time fretting about semicolon use for two hours instead of writing the next page. That’s like worrying about the bathroom tiles before the bricks are in place. It is just that it is often best to get your large elements in line, and make changes when you realize something isn’t working, before completing the whole building.

There are exceptions, of course. Some writers really do spit up nonsense and slowly shape it into something new. But most writers do something in-between that and slowly editing each line as they go. I remember Zadie Smith saying that she always rewrote the first chapter of her books over and over again until she got the voice exactly right. Once that was just right, the rest of the book flowed out like a river. Perhaps you’ll work best spitting out a chapter, polishing it, then spitting out another. Or maybe you spend time honing down all your major elements in an outline, and then quickly write a draft with your scaffolding already firmly in place. The real answer is never some absolute rule, but always about finding what works for you.

21 Responses

  1. zoetropicdream

    I feel a lot of self-conscienceness when I write and tend to have several sheets of paper with the same three lines on them before I get going. Emails that take 45 mins to write because I am trying to get the right tone.

    To use your house analogy, sometimes I can build a house with too many spiers and no basement, and other times I can build a room and not find a place for a door

    I have often thought it would be easier to write a first draft from start to finish and fill in the holes but my mind is too chaotic to stay on track that long.

    I’m wondering, is there a happy medium, or am I still just trying to find my voice?

    Reply
  2. Caroline

    I always edit as I go, which tends to make me a very slow writer and when I’m finished I will go back and edit again and again anyway. I know for some writers the pace of this process would be infuriating – I may sit down for a couple of hours in a day and only have 200 words to show for it – while for others this is a necessary way to go about it in order to avoid the painful process of throwing 90% of the first draft out.

    That said I do believe there is something to be said for claiming that all first drafts are shit. If you’re not allowed to be rubbish in the first instance then you might never get started.

    What I can never wrap my head around though is the dogma of certain ‘writing tips’, such as ‘write what you know’ and ‘don’t edit as you write’. When I write, it often feels as though I am chipping away at a big lump of word marble and I need to attack different parts at different points in time in order to reveal the bigger picture. I can’t just hack my way down through the story.

    Reply
  3. Lincoln Michel

    Caroline: I think it’s important for all writers (but especially young writers) to give themselves permission to fail, and permission to write bad drafts. It’s very true that crappy drafts can be turned into great work. I don’t think we need to lie to young writers and pretend like no first drafts are ever good though.

    Reply
    • Caroline

      I’m inclined to agree. I think it’s more dogma that I have a problem with more than anything. I’d worry that young (and even not so young) writers will tie themselves up in knots wondering whether or not they need to write several drafts of something, assuming that it will not be any good unless they do. By the same token, I think some writers might be fooled into thinking a single draft is fine because they edited as they went, when one more spin around the merry-go-round might take a piece from good to great.

      I agree with your concerns that young writers might take these ‘rules’ to heart and take it to mean that no edits, tweaks or changes are allowed until all the words have been vomited on the page first. For example, I’m a big planner and love to have a nice clear outline of all my work before I start churning out paragraphs but I would be loathe to suggest that everyone needs to do this as I’m sure there are many writers who prefer to just get something on the page first.

      Reply
  4. Joe

    I completely agree with everything written in this post. I think it’s a new adventure each time we write something, and each of these has different requirements.

    Reply
  5. Masilo Nthoboloko

    The moment I start to write I always gear my mind to whether I am writing toward my desired goal about the article. All of a heap to verify the text and edut requres me excellent time and critera to project the theme to the public.

    Reply
  6. Wendy

    I agree wholeheartedly. Everything you said, and I have a reason that isn’t mentioned. Sometimes, it’s hard to forge ahead: I may have just finished a strongly-envisioned scene and I’m not sure where to go next. So I edit and revise. I’m legitimately working on the story, even if the muse doesn’t strike. And maybe something a few pages back will give me an idea of what to do next. Kind of like backtracking a bit in order to get a running start at a steep section of hill.

    I just wish I could have convinced my high school English teacher of that. He had us locked in to not only “first drafts” but outlines, too–and it soured me against outlines for years afterward.

    Reply
  7. Lane Diamond

    I can’t do a straight, unedited, sloppy first draft. Indeed, every day I return to the manuscript, I first revisit what I wrote in my last session, and clean it up as I go. Perfect? No, but I certainly address anything that just jumps right out at me.

    In this way, my final “first” draft isn’t really a first draft at all, but a fairly clean manuscript that should only need some high-end polishing — this always includes, for me, ramping up the power of the prose.

    Reply
  8. John Aalborg

    Outlines have not been addressed here. Good. For fiction, they take the joy out of writing. When I sit down each morning I look forward to what might happen next being revealed to me. That said, I do not start a story or a novel until I can see the movie in my head, hear the characters voices, and see everyone’s physical attributes. Then all I have to do is type up the script, so to speak, as I observe my characters in action. After the draft is finished, I let it sit for a few days or longer. If I go on to another project long enough, when I get back to a first draft I expect it to be a page turner as I vet and edit along. If it is not a page turner, then the first draft is shit, as they say, and these I often abandon. As for the vetting process, Elmore Leonard once said he leaves out the pages readers would skip.

    For writers who need to know how friends or loved ones will judge a project, I used to use the following trick. I would pick at random several pages from the current project, size them to paper-book size, and print them on that yellowish paper, with phoney page numbers included. Leave these pages lying about. If someone approaches you and demands where the rest of the book is, you may have a winner.

    Reply
  9. Rod Griffiths

    I’m sure banning edit as you go makes sense. Almost all hard and fast RULES have something wrong with them, but if editing on the go stops the rhythm, then don’t do it. On the other hand there are very few people who write a whole novel without stopping for food or sleep and there is a lot to be said for reading yesterday’s work before starting todays. A bit of editing while doing that fells like a good idea.
    I think Kill your darlings is equally too rigid. Recycle your darlings is better advice. If you’ve written something you like then use it, but not necessarily in the piece where it started life.

    Reply
  10. Ken (Great Writers Steal)

    It’s interesting that you should use a fountain pen graphic for the article. I have found that writing longhand–with a fountain pen, in particular–really helps me to edit. First of all, the act of writing with the fountain pen forces me to slow down a little; I’m hoping that results in better choices. Second, I can’t avoid editing a second time as I type the handwritten manuscript into Word. I junk the particularly bad phrases and I’m forced to reconsider some of the other choices I’ve made, all before I have a typewritten manuscript in my hands.

    Reply
  11. John

    Great!

    Just what I needed.

    For me, editing a big pile of shit is actually what I dread most of the writing process. I’ve tried but the result is mostly sloppy and worse than when I edit on the go.

    Your article gave me permission to do the latter. 🙂

    Thanks….

    Reply

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