There’s this maxim prominent in writer circles. If you’re a writer, or if you have much to do with writers, you’ve seen it or heard it. You may even have said it or posted it. It’s one of those catchy, four-word phrases meant to give pause, to get you thinking. To condense a whole world of meaning into an easy sound bite.
I gave it away in the post title, but in case you aren’t following me it’s this one: Your First Draft Sucks. Alternately, Your First Draft ALWAYS sucks.
This is my reaction when I hear or see those words:
Look, I understand the intent. We all know people who are so enamored of the idea of themselves as writers and the process of putting words on a page as sacred that they refuse to apply any critical thinking to their work. It may be we’ve all been that person at one time or another. Maybe we churned out fifty to a hundred thousand words and were so proud of the achievement that we wanted to share it with the world. Maybe we were too close to the work to see the flaws. Maybe we didn’t have the education and experience to judge. Maybe we lived a life where we didn’t have access to a good critique partner or community of supportive writers. Or maybe we were scared of self-examination. Whatever; I can see how people might feel the need to remind folks that critical thinking and self-editing are part of the writing process. The problem is, saying “Your First Draft Sucks” does nothing to address the issues, and it can be downright harmful.
Writers are a vulnerable bunch. Whether by intent or predisposition, we, like most others who pursue an art form, feel things deeply. It takes a gigantic amount of courage to translate deeply felt realities into words and put them onto a page, and that’s not even considering the amount of courage it takes to share your work with others. I know there are those who–at least ostensibly–seem t0 take up writing because of the idea that it’s a glamorous life that will result in immediate fame and fortune, with little work involved. But 1. that’s a myth, and 2. for every writer I know who subscribes to the myth, I can count half a dozen who sweat blood over their work and are afraid to show it to anyone. Because, deep inside, there is always the question: Is this any good? Have I expressed my deeply held reality in a way that will convey it to other people? Or am I pretending to have skill at something I’m no good at? Is this thing I want out of my grasp? Unrealistic? Should I give up on my dream?
Yeah, telling these folks that they suck isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s kind of like this:
When I see or hear “Your First Draft Sucks,” it tells me way more about the person saying it than it does about anyone to whom they’re talking. I ask, “Why do you need to repeat this? What’s so threatening to you about other people’s first drafts? Why do you need to perpetuate this idea that all writers–especially beginning writers–think of themselves as ‘special snowflakes’ (ODIOUS TERM) with the golden semen of angels pouring from their pens?”
I also think, “Here is a person who does not know how to give constructive criticism, or who can’t be bothered to.”
The first rule of constructive criticism is: Be Specific. Please explain to me, what is specific about telling a writer her first draft sucks? I read a lot of manuscripts, and though quite a few of them have problems (sometimes numerous problems), I can say with certainty that none of them categorically sucked, first draft or not. Even in manuscripts that I’ve found amateurish and cliche-ridden, there have been gems. Characters that leap off the page, scenes that make me laugh, or cry. Beautiful words and original ideas. Why in the world would I want to risk having a new writer scrap all that by telling her, “Your first draft sucks?”
Hey, you know, if you don’t want to deal with all that, fine. Don’t be an Alpha reader or a Critique Partner. Say, “I’m sorry, I don’t read manuscripts.” Don’t put your issue on the writer. Especially don’t use your status as an established writer to intimidate someone new to the craft, or spout bullshit aphorisms out of some weird intent to make yourself look knowledgeable. Because what it looks like is this:
One last thing: When you say something like “Your First Draft Sucks” as if it’s a universal truth, you are assuming that everyone’s process is alike and everyone’s first draft looks the same. They aren’t. Not everyone sits down and writes straight through a story to the end (oh yeah–that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. Another useless standard.). My writing process looks a lot like this: Write first chapter. Think about it for a couple weeks. Write a few more chapters. Decide that I don’t like what’s going on in Chapter Three and I didn’t touch on something important in Chapter Five. Go back and fix those. Continue through the first act. Think about it some more. Realize I need to do something in second act that I didn’t lead up to, so go back through act one and stick in foreshadowing. Write some more chapters. Discover a character vital to the outcome of the story doesn’t exist. Create character and if necessary go back and insert him into previous chapters so his appearance doesn’t come out of nowhere.
The thing is, by the time I have a First Draft folder containing an entire book from beginning to end, I’ve already done the work to make it hold together, with a consistent, comprehensible plot containing a clear beginning, middle, and end. Sure, there’s work yet to do. But my first draft does not suck. Some of this is because of the way I work, and some of this is because I’ve been writing forty years, and some is because I have a highly organized mind that doesn’t veer off on strange tangents. Whatever the reason, your sound bite doesn’t apply to me. And it doesn’t apply to most others.
So let’s stop perpetuating this one, okay? Writers have enough grief to cope with. We don’t need it from each other.