• Crit & Pen

The Ugly Duckling: Learn to Embrace Your Hideous First Draft

The first draft of a project is hard. In the beginning, it’s just you, your outline, and your coffee maker, facing the gaping void where hundreds of pages need to be. Time stretches out forever. Day after day you sit down, make your daily word count… and then make a huge mistake. You reread today’s pages. And yesterday’s. And the ones before those. To your dismay, you hate all of them.

It's okay! You don’t have to change anything about that draft. In fact, please don’t. Your 133.75 rough, hideous pages are fine. Take it from someone who knows: trying to fix them now is just going to kill your momentum. Instead, let’s try a change of perspective.

Remember the story of the ugly duckling? There was nothing wrong with that baby bird! People just wanted him to be something he wasn’t. Many young animals are scruffy, out of proportion, and lack the details - fur, feathers, colorful markings - that make their parents distinctive and beautiful. That’s because, just like your draft, they aren’t done growing yet!

Today, we’re talking about hideous first drafts. I hope I can inspire you to leave that baby book alone… and be kinder to the passionate writer who has poured so much heart into this ugly duckling.

Just the Bones

It’s the end of the work day and you are spiraling. You’ve reread your manuscript and it just doesn’t hold together. Your plot points are scenes floating in space, with nothing binding them into a narrative. There are whole chapters of dialogue (that no longer seems witty to you). Your descriptive writing ignores four out of five senses, if you’ve remembered descriptive writing at all.

Beloved children’s author Judy Blume said, “The first draft is a skeleton […] just bare bones. The rest of the story comes later with revising.” Did you know that the average human’s skeleton makes up around 15% of their body mass? And, despite what cartoons would have you believe, a skeleton is just a loose collection of bones! They can’t hold together without connective tissues!

If your first draft feels a little bare bones, that’s fine! Your energy was focused on laying out the shape of the story. Building the beautiful imagery, the exposition, and the smaller, transitional scenes that form most of the story’s body happens later.

And speaking of focusing your energy….

Worn Out By Repetition

I’m a perfectionist, too. I used to revise at the end of every sentence, then every paragraph. I’d revise when I finished a page, or a scene, or a chapter. I was constantly editing the same words, until I had them memorized, until I could see them when I closed my eyes. And it showed. It showed in the smooth grammatical perfection of my line. It showed in the hours I could spend turning out a single paragraph. It showed when the very thought of a second full draft of any project could reduce me to a stress-eating mess.

The worst part, though, was not the energy and time I was wasting. The worst part was that the end results weren’t very good. If you write the same paragraph twenty times, the prose starts to lose energy. As an editor, I can assure you that no matter how perfect the technical structures, sometimes a page is just as worn out as its author.

Your first draft may be messy. You may have a small hoard of overused polysyllabic words no one can define. You may have forgotten everything you ever knew about commas. But overworked prose is harder to save than unedited prose.

There Is Another Way

Prolific science fiction writer C. J. Cherryh said “It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.” That’s easier said than believed, right? It comes down to discipline. Writing a bad first draft, and loving it for what it is, are skills you can build over time.


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