Why You Should Write A Rubbish First Draft
How This Helps You Write A Gripping Story
The opposite of perfect
The most important thing to realize for your first draft is that you must seek the opposite of perfection. This is true whether you’re writing a short story, a Medium post, a piece for your blog or a novel.
I know, when you first hear about this concept it’s pretty hard to believe, and even harder to put in practice — I’ve been through this process many times myself.
What I’d like to focus on here, is fiction. What I gradually realized about writing, is that perfection is overrated. Our priority as writers should be to express ourselves by exposing our ideas and to feel free to tell stories spontaneously.
Then comes the polishing part, at the very end. If you make the mistake of polishing as you go from the beginning, then you’re very likely to lose your momentum and not tell an interesting story.
And that would be game over.
If I have to pick a single rule you should follow for your first draft, I choose this one: Make it fast, write forward, don’t look back.
The method that’s worked for me
To be able to hammer out a first draft that forms the basis for a great piece of fiction, I do two things:
1. I spend some time planning the story’s structure.
This is by no means a long and detailed plan. On the contrary, a brief list of phrases or a few notes will do just fine.
I do this because I need to have reference points, anchors for guidance and at least some background material to work with. I’ve found that my stories come out much better when I have some idea of where I’m going.
2. I write the thing as fast as I can, loosely following the plan.
Then I start writing, with a vague idea of my story’s structure in mind. The trick here is to go fast and not spend any time whatsoever polishing things. I can’t stress this enough.
More about all this in a bit, because I need to clarify something first.
Some people are pantsers and others are plotters. I’m a plotter, which means that I don’t feel safe writing without some kind of guide. You may not like this idea if you’re a pantser, because what you like to do is just write and see where it takes you.
That’s fine. It means that your brain performs better when it’s free to create a story from scratch.
You can leave out the planning part if it doesn’t suit you, otherwise you may be trying to function in a way that’s against your nature. However, I would suggest you try the planning thing once, just to see what happens. You never know.
Now, this next part is the exciting bit.
How planning and writing fast work together
You’ve probably thought about your story for a while, so in your mind you have some idea of the main premise and how your plot will unfold.
You must have made a summary of the story in your head one way or another, otherwise the whole thing wouldn’t be interesting enough to consider writing about in the first place.
This is what I mean when I say “planning” a draft
Doing some basic planning before you start typing your story serves as the rails that keep a train on course. This type of quick planning is not the train’s driver — that would be you. It’s not the engine, either.
It’s just what keeps the engine traveling to the right direction, so you don’t have to think about steering as you push that throttle.
To me, planning a first draft simply means asking myself a few simple questions. The answers I come up with are my guide for keeping myself on track as I type the draft — which has to be done fast, remember?
The three questions I typically ask myself
You may have come across some of these concepts in books or writing workshops, like I did. Answering (at least) these four questions is the foundation of all my drafts.
Quick note here:
If you’re writing a short story, sometimes answering the first two of the questions that follow are enough to take you through your draft.
My short stories usually require a bit more thinking, though, because I tend to put in a fair amount of detail in regards to my characters and the story’s layers. If you’re like me, you may find it helpful to also seek answers to questions 3 and 4.
Question 1: What if…
This might be what you already do when you come up with a new story idea. If not, you should give it a go. Ask yourself a question that describes an unusual situation. This is the heart of your story.
- What if a woman is walking on the street and suddenly someone slips a folded piece of paper in her pocket?
- What if someone finds out that some of the pages in the book he’s reading have been shuffled?
- What if a little girl is playing in the back yard and discovers a little box buried by her grandmother in the ground 80 years ago?
This is the premise of one of my own recent stories:
- What if a doctor in the Victorian era is unable to explain how an old woman has lived an unusually long life?
Even if you have a very good idea of what your story is about, when you form a “what if” question to sum it up, you might realize you can make it even more interesting. It might help you uncover a concept or a fact that improves your story.
Question 2: What’s the basic structure of my story?
Have you thought of a beginning, the stuff in the middle and roughly what happens at the end? Even if you’re a pantser, I strongly recommend that you consider writing a very simple outline. The reason for this is that you might get lost quite easily if you haven’t decided where you’re going.
It’s like when you go out for a walk. If you haven’t defined a destination, you might walk for hours and it might be very nice, but are you going to get anywhere? Probably not. On the other hand, if you step outside knowing that you’re going to visit your friend Paul, then you’re very likely to end up at Paul’s place eventually.
Mind you, making a decision on what you want the beginning, the middle and the end of your story to be, doesn’t necessarily mean everything is going to stay that way.
That’s absolutely fine, we change our mind as we write all the time. The important thing is to have some form of guide, so you can write forward with a specific goal in mind, even if the goal itself changes along the way.
Question 3: What’s happened in my main character’s past?
Now, this one is gold.
I’ve had people read my short stories, and usually the feedback has been that they’re gripping and fascinating. This is partly because I care about my characters, and I always do my “research” on their past.
Building a character’s backstory feels a lot like discovering someone’s past. I like to spend time thinking about what kind of person a character is and what they’ve been through in their lives so far. Maybe they had an interesting childhood, an adventure that’s changed them, or a relationship that’s worth exploring.
A character always comes into your story carrying baggage. They have their own problems and concerns, dreams and aspirations. They may be deeply worried about something that’s happened, or excited about something that’s about to happen.
The key here is to tell yourself the story before the story. Ask yourself: What happened before? What I like to do is write down all this information, so I can use it as a reference. Sometimes it looks like a separate, little story — that’s what it is, anyway.
You won’t believe how much more alive your character will be after you’ve been through this process. A character with a past feels like a real person. This means it’s much easier for the reader to relate, because they can see themselves in your characters. This is when the story becomes “fascinating”.
You could also do the same for your secondary characters, and not just your protagonist, if you feel it will add value to your story.
Question 4: How does my main character change?
This is essential to consider when you’re writing longer stories, novelettes or novels. I’ve successfully used this concept in 4000–5000 word stories, however, and readers have always told me the story was beautiful and gripping.
I believe answering this question to yourself is what will make your reader want to read more, and remember your story after they’ve finished it.
Having your main character change their beliefs and the way they see the world by the end of the story is what the reader actually expects to see. This may have nothing to do with the plot and how the story unfolds. It’s how this person is eventually affected by everything that happens. How they change internally.
Show your readers how the main character’s view of the world is different at the end. What has he or she learned after having taken part in your story?
This method solves three problems
You never have writer’s block
You know everyone’s motives and backstories, so your characters always have something that drives them to act.
If I spend some time answering these questions in some detail, I never get stuck. I can always write the next scene, because there’s so much to discover about the characters and the plot. It’s all there, waiting for me to explore.
You can get the first draft done fast
I’ve found that I rarely have to stop and think when I write a first draft. I always know what my next goal is, because I’ve set milestones that guide me.
What I particularly like about this method is that it feels like I’m writing a few smaller stories which eventually form a bigger one. I can focus on a scene that might even be only a couple of pages long, knowing what will happen in the scene that follows.
All I have to do is just let myself free to imagine how the scene unfolds and write it. This allows me to move forward much faster.
You write a gripping story
You’ve put some thought into the structure and the characters’ background, so now in your mind you have new layers of complexity without even realizing it. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the story becomes interesting by itself. You still need to put in the work and make it interesting through your own, personal style. But you’ve made a great start.
Your first draft should be rubbish
In my experience, the above is the absolute minimum one should bear in mind when setting out to write a new story. If you’re writing a short story, this should do as a guide and you should be able to get on with your first draft fairly quickly.
The longer your story, though, the more thought you need to put in at the planning stage. In case you’re starting a novel, I would suggest you spend a significant amount of time planning the whole thing, or you’re likely to get lost in the process.
Either way, the thing to remember is to write fast, put your ideas out there, and don’t stop to edit. If you start editing, you’re derailing yourself. Don’t even look at the same sentence twice.
Your first draft should be rubbish.
Honestly, that’s what I do. I don’t even stop to find the right word or a more elegant expression, I just write bad sentences. Your goal should be to get it done as fast as you possibly can, so you have a full story in your hands.
When you’ve got your story, making it beautiful is your next task.
Ideas for further reading and guidance
If you’d like to find out more about building the structure of a piece of fiction, these are some resources I found really useful when I was starting to write.