First Drafts Are Supposed to Suck

People often think of writing a book as this impossible, mystical process that only the most intellectually gifted can hope to conquer.

Well, I’ve just written a non-fiction book, and I can tell you that great, profound thoughts most certainly aren’t the most important part of the process.

In fact, it’s actually quite simple:

  1. Write a bad book.
  2. Fix it.

Writing a book, fiction or non-fiction, is just another type of long-term project. It requires planning, research, and outlining.

I learned from writing my first book that the only real requirements are:

  1. You need to love the underlying topic and be able to write about it for at least a year
  2. You need discipline. You need to show up, even (especially) when times are tough
  3. You need a plan. Grab some pen and paper and write an outline. Having a goal to strive for makes #2 much easier

These aren’t “nice to have”s. They’re absolute iron requirements if you really want to write something that will help people.

If you lack discipline, then all your writing skills are useless.

How would you treat a year-long project at your 9–5 job? Would you expect the very first iteration of your software to work perfectly? No, you’d expect bugs. You iron these problems out, iterate again with more feedback, and repeat.

Funnily enough, this is exactly what a professional book-writing process looks like too.

  1. You research, plan, and write an outline
  2. You get your first draft down
  3. You edit that first draft to create a new draft. Ideally bring in an independent third party to help
  4. Repeat #3 until you have a readable book

The only reason that most people’s novels aren’t finished is because they haven’t planned enough. If you don’t outline your story, then you won’t have concrete goals ahead of you.

Getting that first draft down feels incredible. For my own book, I will never forget it. The 90,000 word manuscript had a lot of editing and polishing ahead of it, but actually having the base of my text down on paper was the first taste of accomplishment.

I often tell my readers that first drafts are not supposed to be perfect. In fact, they’re supposed to suck. If you try to write perfectly, and agonise over every step in your story, then you’ll be driving with the handbrake on.

“The worst thing you can do is censor yourself as the pencil hits the paper. You must not edit until you get it all on paper. If you can put everything down, stream-of-consciousness, you’ll do yourself a service.” — Stephen Sondheim

The bestselling author Neil Strauss has explained his process for drafting his books:

  1. Write “Your Draft” — The first draft. This is where you get your story on paper. It’s laying down the initial block of stone before sculpting away.
  2. Write “Your Reader’s Draft” — The second draft. This is where you do your first edits. The goal is to make it into a readable book. Take out anything that does not serve the story.
  3. Write “Your Hater’s Draft”— The third draft. Like it or not, there are people who just like to write hateful reviews for the hell of it. If you have any logical inconsistencies, factual errors, or missed copyrights in your bibliography, someone’s going to notice them. Don’t give the haters any fuel — find and correct these errors.

Neil’s structure should show you that the process can indeed be broken down into a set of manageable steps. Having a roadmap ahead of you makes it a lot easier to show up when times feel tough and you feel like the words are coming a lot slower than you’d like. Trust in your book’s roadmap.

When writing my book, I found it helpful to pay for a professional cover design in the middle of writing my first draft. I paid about $500 and the resulting design was amazing.

Seeing this book cover and imagining holding it in my hands and passing it to people to help their writing careers, felt so warm and good.

This gave me an extra boost of motivation, but it also meant I was committed.

I already knew I had the right discipline to get the book done. I’m good with seeing long-term projects through to the end.

However small they might seem, little extra pieces of motivation like getting an early book cover design that I loved, were like refreshing pit stops on a long and tiring journey.

My first draft was full of mistakes. It had dozens of spelling errors. My brilliant copy-editor noticed factual errors. She also noticed I’d quite often used the wrong tense for entire paragraphs.

I didn’t feel defensive, in fact I loved finding these errors. Any mistake spotted by myself or my editor was one less mistake spotted by a reader. And that reader’s experience might be completely ruined. It seems harsh, but a simple typo can break a reader’s immersion, and make you seem like an amateur. In self-publishing, we already have enough of a stigma on us — so in our editing, let’s get as close to perfection as possible.

All of that might seem scary, but it can only happen once the first draft exists. I’ve gone on for long enough about the drafting process. So I’ll hand the mic over to Jodi Picoult and let her finish this post on a concise note:

“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”— Jodi Picoult

The only way to really succeed at getting your first draft on paper is to bring forth all your discipline, dedication, and love for your book’s subject. But you can’t deny the critical importance of an outline and plan for your story.

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