By far the worst piece of writing advice I see from blogs and internet personalities is to “just write a shitty first draft.” This goes closely with all the advice online about writing quickly, getting your novel done in 10 days (or whatever arbitrary time frame sells at the time), or writing 1,000,000 words per year. When we give people this advice and they roll with it, their word counts may increase day-to-day but I often fear that the sum total quality of their storytelling is suffering. It’s not that “shut up and write” is bad advice, it’s that when we fail to emphasize how important practice is in getting better, we promote a culture of “get it done quick”—which kills the story.
Stop Killing the Story
Shitty first drafts kill the story. I’m sorry, but if your solution to being unable to “flesh out” a “soggy middle” is to just add crap until you’re done, you’re not being a very good storyteller. Instead of writing crap, why not take the time to write something good?
What would have a greater impact in a story: one well written sentence that took eight minutes to write, or eight sentences that took one minute to write? Think about that for a moment. Writing is like sculpting: chisel away at the page until the shapes and sounds and meaning of the letters come together to tell that story. Tell the story; stop killing the story!
Sculpt with a Chisel, not More Rock
Writing a good story is like chiseling the empty pages away with letters. It’s an artistic process of expression, so treat it like one. Don’t vomit words onto paper to fill the gaps between the beginning and the end; sculpt your story out of the blank page, piece by piece, carefully shaping the stone until you can go over it with a smaller chisel and carve out the finer details. If one part of it takes a long time, then so be it.
Have you head that story about James Joyce?
A friend came to visit James Joyce one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.
’James, what’s wrong?’ the friend asked. ‘Is it the work?’
Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at his friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): ‘Seven.’
Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you.’
Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”
Chasing a word count is only going to lead you to madness. Give yourself permission to treat the pages like stone, and the words like the result of fine taps on the chisel.
In George Dila’s Rethinking the Shitty First Draft, we’re reminded that the often-cited Hemingway quote–“The first draft of anything is shit”–may have been misconstrued by the general public as being permission to forgo pride in one’s work and just write garbage.
Imagine painting a picture, and instead of thinking deliberately about what the final result is going to be, you just apply strokes here and there without any real regard to how those strokes are going to affect the final product. One thing I’ve learned from watching Bob Ross on Netflix is that you always start with the foundation of brightness and color. Without that, you end up wasting time later as you try to make up for past mistakes.
It’s an easy thing to fix; stop telling yourself that it’s okay to write shitty first drafts. Your story is sculpted on the page, and by giving yourself permission to just write whatever without any regard to the final product, you’re essentially making yourself have to carve this sculpture more than once.
Can we ever get an amazing first draft? I doubt it. Hemingway wasn’t wrong in that regard. But what we can do is get rid of the notion that it’s okay to just write garbage.
Absolute Advice is Not Real
The whole “write shitty first drafts” thing may work for some people, but for new writers I think we’re putting it into their heads that it’s okay to treat writing as a process of achieving a word count instead of a process of self-expression. Maybe I’m biased from the people I have worked with, or maybe I have just seen too many people dismiss their lack of commitment and desire to really engross themselves into their work by chalking it up to the “necessary” shitty first draft.
The first draft of anything is shit, but that doesn’t mean we should strive for shit when we write.