Monday, March 21, 2011

The Only Goal of a First Draft

If you’re a writer struggling with your first draft, I have great news for you:

Quality doesn’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong. Quality will matter – a lot – down the road. But right now, at this pinpoint in time, this exact moment – as you struggle and scramble to whip your first draft into shape – as you sweat and shake and feel like smashing your computer against the wall – as you glare at the books on your shelves, wondering how they do it, all those talented, successful, published bastards – as you look for advice and inspiration through your writing books, and find none – as you convince yourself that you have no talent, and never did, and never will, no matter how hard you try – as you flip back through old files, old pages, muttering to yourself, “crap, crap, crap, more crap” –as you practice writing exercises, futilely searching for some breakthrough that you know, just know, will never come – at this moment – this moment here – this moment now – Quality. Doesn’t. Matter.

So what does matter?

Completion. The only goal of a first draft is to complete it. If you put in some nice dialogue, great. If you build a solid structure for future drafts, great. If you have some decent characterizations, a tight plot, a sweet turn of phrase, great, great, great. But those are ancillary benefits, separate from your goal.

And the chase for those ancillary benefits lead many a writer to abandon first draft after first draft, halfway through. If only they realized that quality doesn’t matter. It’s a first draft. It’s not supposed to be perfect. And by completing it, you’ve already done more than 99.9 percent of people who call themselves writers ever accomplish.

Later, I’ll write more about techniques for completing your first drafts, and about the ever-important revising phase. But this post isn’t about craft, or technique. This post is about reminding you that first drafts are about completion, not quality.

By the way, I’ve written this post straight through, with no revisions. This is a first draft. It’s the only first draft I will ever post on this blog. But I wanted to make a point. Glancing over it, I think it’s crap. But you know what? Quality doesn’t matter. I completed it. And that’s what matters.

Now go complete your first draft.


  1. I wish I read this post fifteen years (or more) ago. Instead of having a drawerful of unfinished, barely-started crud, I would have had a drawerful of completed crud...with possibly some not-so-cruddy pieces hidden amongst the stacks.
    The keyword is COMPLETED, the most important step in the process.

  2. Wow. This is what I really needed to hear.

    I've written one short story (seven thousand and some odd words) and I really struggled once I was about half way in.

    I knew how it was going to end, I knew how to get there, but I spent a lot of time agonizing over every little detail.

    Now that I'm working on my second story, I'm going to take your advice and just get the damn thing written. Have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Then I can go back and make it sound pretty :)


  3. Thanks, all. I really appreciate it.

    Steeven, I agree, the agonizing over details will really kill you. I think the thing to remember is, a lousy first draft has the potential to become a great final draft. But an unfinished first draft -- whether lousy or phenomenal -- will never, ever, ever become a final draft. When you think of it that way, it's only logical to power through and finish your first draft, no matter how unhappy you are with it.

  4. Fantastic words of wisdom, Paul!