The Beauty of a Terrible Rough Draft

Many aspiring writers know that they have something meaningful to say and an original way to say it. Their problem isn’t ability or talent or interest. Their problem is getting started—putting something on the blank paper in front of them. What keeps the paper blank is often the daunting prospect of a poor first draft. Writers worry that a terrible draft will set them off in the wrong direction, or, conversely, they believe that only a perfect rough draft will ensure writing success. I argue that writers shouldn’t fear creating a terrible rough draft. In fact, a terrible rough draft can be a source of many interesting ideas.

Paradoxically, the most helpful part of the writing process isn’t writing at all; it’s editing a rough draft. During this early edit, a story begins to take shape and the argument to fully manifest itself. Characters reveal their three dimensions, and their true motivations become clear. A writer can sense the full sweep of a piece and analyze its details.

A rough draft, then, contains within it many of the good ideas that a writer will develop into a final piece. It also contains the bad ideas that a writer will remove. A sprawling, meandering rough draft—one in which the plot abruptly changes halfway through or characters appear and disappear inexplicably—can provide a writer with the most ideas to develop and with the best sense of what works and what doesn’t. A rough draft that goes in several directions at once and seems to have no overarching trajectory can often contain more hidden literary gems that a pristine, tightly controlled first draft. Thus, the goal of the aspiring writer should be to create a rough draft—any rough draft, terrible though it may be.

Of course, the frustrated writer who has yet to scribble down a single sentence might find infuriating the suggestion that he or she somehow leap from a blank page to a complete manuscript. Asking a writer to fill not just one blank page, but many, can seem ridiculous. However, I argue that a rough draft is about sheer page number, and not about quality. The rough-draft writer should set a goal length and start writing.

Writing for length only forces the writer to include every idea that comes to mind—even the most seemingly ridiculous. Ideas that seem foolish during the rough-draft stage often prove to be brilliant. In the best case, a writer might have a general idea of plot or topic—the story of a girl who learns to sail, a tale of sibling rivalry or an article about mushrooms. However, a writer with no topic or no idea will usually find that a topic or idea emerges in the writing. The main idea is just to keep writing until reaching the desired length.

A few guidelines can help the rough-draft writer.

  1. Writing about the writing process can sometimes generate good ideas. For example, a sentence like, “I want to write about a boy who invents a machine that allows him to experience life as a strawberry.” might lead to a real storyline and plot. Or “I’m trying to explain how I felt when I won the marathon but lost my job.” might help a theme coalesce.
  2. However, writers should refrain from writing too much about how badly the writing process is going. Limit the number of sentences that read something like, “I can’t write. This is awful. Nobody will ever read this.” Write more about the writing than the writer.
  3. Try not to fall into the trap of The Shining, where the novel Jack Nicholson’s character has written turns out to be one endlessly repeated sentence with varying margins and line spacing. Repeating, “This is a rough draft.” will not lead to a productive rough draft, terrible or otherwise.
  4. Do not edit before the first draft is complete. No matter how badly the writing is going, refrain from going back to rework the text. Editing a partial draft is a pitfall for many writers who refine the partial so much that they never finish the draft. If you become aware of some problem before you have finished the rough draft, make a note to yourself. This note will be valuable during the revision. (Write something like, “Brenda should actually learn about the accident after she meets Noah, not before.” or “Should this story take place in the Bahamas, not in New York City?”) Remember that the unlikeliest of ideas might later be the most fruitful. Keep them all in the rough draft, because you never know what might prove to be good, upon the first edit.
  5. Try to write without rereading what you have written until you finish the rough draft. Although you might feel as though you’re writing in the dark and you might forget some of what you wrote earlier, you will be unencumbered by earlier infelicities and missteps. On your most creative days, you can write freely, without brooding about problems at the beginning of your manuscript. Every writing session will feel like a new day.
  6. Praise yourself for each addition you make to the length of your manuscript. The longer it gets, the closer you are to having a first draft to edit.
  7. Try to write your first draft in the most bare-bones way possible. Forget about outlines, writing courses, colored pens, lucky writing charms, prompts and all other writing aids. Just write.
  8. Do not give up, even if the plot stops making sense or the argument begins to drag. The point is to reach a specific word or page limit. As you write, think about patching up problems “on the fly,” without going back to edit. Make notes to yourself if you think of something you will want to rework during the edit. (See #3.) Don’t worry if the story changes significantly as you write (the nurse main character suddenly works better as a wrestler, the unmarried main character has actually been married all along). Make the change—however dramatic—and reconcile the differences in the editing process, after you finish the first draft.

Once you have a rough draft to consider, you have something to do—a piece of writing to shape and rework and perfect. The missteps that make a first draft terrible are actually paths to its potential greatness.

[Check out my next three blog postings for examples of terrible rough drafts with great potential.]

Tags: , ,

4 Responses to “The Beauty of a Terrible Rough Draft”

  1. […] Beaumont Hardy Editing: Before and After « The Beauty of a Terrible Rough Draft […]

  2. […] ready for editing. At Beaumont Hardy, I have long encouraged the writing of what I call the “terrible rough draft“–a piece of writing that exists solely for the purpose of productive subsequent […]

  3. […] in an earlier post, the first option is to plow ahead valiantly, writing what I call the “terrible first draft–a manuscript notable mostly for its completeness but, perhaps, harboring several kernels of […]

  4. […] through a “dry spell,” I argue that any writing is better than no writing. Even a terrible rough draft can yield positive writing results. The point is just to write. I now propose the Abraham Lincoln […]

Leave a Reply