The Beauty of Shitty First Drafts

1st draft

When I began writing the manuscript for my novel, I didn’t know how to go about it. I had a concept and knew what the opening scene would be, but that was all. So I tried to take a common-sense approach.

You obviously need characters for any story, so I created a list of names and their relationship to the main character. You also need a plot, so I roughed out an outline that consisted of chapter numbers and the general theme of each chapter. This step took awhile because if this outline was going to be my roadmap, I actually had to think the story through.

Writing the opening prologue was a piece of cake because, big surprise, the main character has MS, and the prologue is a dramatization of the day MS first introduced itself to me. But then the process came to a screeching halt. Like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming tractor trailer, I stared back and forth between the computer screen, the keyboard, and the outline. I didn’t know how or where to tell the story that was in my head. Fortunately, I remembered something K told me about a piece of advice she attributed to an article she read about the novelist Ann Lamott.

To paraphrase Lamott, the key to writing a story is to complete a shitty first draft (our words), one where you don’t worry about the words, how it flows, if it is free of spelling or grammatical errors, or anything like that. Just get the words down first, and worry about that other stuff later.

That little nugget freed me from my insecurity and saved time, the end result of which was a complete manuscript that exceeded 140,000 words. What I found intriguing and ironic about the process is that many chapters I assumed would be the most difficult to write were often very easy, and those I assumed would just flow were the most difficult.

The most important thing was to write without a conscience. I followed Lamott’s advice to a T, and would recommend that anyone who gets stuck on a project to do the same. Just be prepared for what you’ll see when that shitty first draft is done

What I saw was god-awful: spelling and grammar mistakes galore, sentences, and sometimes complete paragraphs, that didn’t make any sense. Going back and editing this swill was painstaking, frustrating, laborious, and I wound up doing it more times than I care to remember before sharing it with my editor. It was a humbling experience.

What didn’t change, however, was the core of the story, and when you have that, you have everything. Anybody can make the words sing, but there is no music unless you create the notes. In my case, the core didn’t change much from the first writing to what was probably the twentieth. I lost count after a while.

Why so many re-writes? First of all, it took forever to catch everything that needed fixing. After every re-edit, I re-read the manuscript and always found stuff I missed the previous time. Once I got to the point where I thought it was good enough to share with my editor, it came back with a lot of red ink and recommended changes. Each time I completed the edits I agreed with, it would come back again with more suggestions. On and on it went like that until we were both happy with the manuscript.

The most difficult challenge was to pare the text down to less than 100,000 words, because my editor believed any author’s inaugural work should be 100,000 words or less. Who was I to argue? And I must admit, there was a lot of fluff. The final product was much cleaner and tighter than what I started with.

Ultimately, the manuscript was done, and I compared the process to what I thought being pregnant must feel like. In the beginning, you are excited, thrilled and enthusiastic beyond belief,  but nine months later,  you’re uncomfortable, sick and tired of lugging the weight around, and just want it to be over and done.

I whole-heartedly embrace the shitty first draft philosophy. It’s a practice I have since followed with everything I write, including this blog. I encourage anyone to stop being critical and get the idea out first because if you self edit while writing or stop in mid-stream to look at what you’ve written, you can lose your train of thought, not to mention getting frustrated as hell.

Better to save your frustration for later after everything is done. That way, you at least have a complete text to mold and shape.





Author: Steve Markesich

I am loving husband, a doting father, a Red Sox fanatic, an aspiring novelist and MS advocate. Feel free to check out my web site.

11 thoughts on “The Beauty of Shitty First Drafts”

  1. While reading along I kept thinking, “this is how I blog!”, then you summed it up in that second to the last paragraph. Stream it all out and then go back and look at it. Sometimes I’ve done that and said “this is crap” and shelved the piece. Often I’ll look at it the next day and think it’s better than I thought and almost complete. Weird how perspective can change by walking away.

    A year ago November I wrote 50,000 words (during NaNoWriMo) of a novel that floated around in my head for 25 years and I enjoyed the experience. Then I took a break. Then I started looking at it for some edits (though it was only about half done) and realized I’m not a novel writer. What I mean by that is that the prose (and I think the story) was good, but the editorial process was long, agonizing, and (clearly) not something I want to be a part of. And I don’t mean that as the sad end to a long story, but as a liberation. I never wrote the novel because writing novels ain’t my bag. I no longer have to tell myself, ad nauseam, that I need to get around to writing a novel! 🤣

    I have nothing but the utmost respect for your vision and patience to get this thing done, Steve. If you have either of those qualities, but not the other, the work will either never get done or never get done well. Kudos to you, my brother, and great advice!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You are right on in regards to something looking like utter crap one day and not so much the next. It’s called perspective. It is also easier to edit if you let it sit a few days.

    If I am completely honest about the process, I can’t say for sure that I would have written the thing if I knew up front what was involved the novel writing process. Then there is the whole publishing part, which is a completely different animal. I can see myself writing another one if I actually do get published, because once you’re in, what follows isn’t as difficult, and I like to tell stories. Until then, I’ll be content to do that in this space.

    BTW – you have a challenge sitting on your plate. It’s up to you if you want to play along.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. …many chapters I assumed would be the most difficult to write were often very easy, and those I assumed would just flow were the most difficult.
    This is what often happens to me. Sometimes, the shorter and simpler the story/ poem, the more I struggle.

    Anyway, great advice and yes…I’m enjoying your book (despite the typos). It’s not what I expected.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is so incredibly valuable, Steve. Thank you! As I contemplate the transition into writing fiction, I find myself, mostly, frozen. When I write poetry, I almost always edit as I go, but I totally get why your philosophy of the shitty first draft works with fiction. This is incredibly helpful!!!! And….you know how I feel about your book!!!!


  5. I think poetry is different. I don’t approach it the same way as fiction, maybe because it still feels foreign to me. I like to get the right words down the first time, but if I get really stuck I will throw something silly in just to get by it and revisit the trouble spot later.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My process was very close to yours. Now. Throw in two additional women attempting to write that shitty outline with you! Arguments, angry texts, one quits! Begin shitty outline #2. Argue, angry texts, finally writing… editing… editing… more outrage, blowing off your co-writer. Editing… Editing… editing. I think I birthed triplets!😂🤣😉 without that shitty outline, there’d be no final product.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my God that was funny! My wife has discussed collaborating on a novel that we both want to write, but I don’t know., It isn’t that I can’t share a sandbox, but add that dynamic into the mix and it is a recipe for disaster. If it pains me to hand over the remote………..

      Liked by 2 people

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