Ernest Hemingway is reported to have said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Decades later, in her book, Bird by Bird, Anne LaMott had a chapter called “Shitty First Drafts”. And author Mur Lafferty is fond of saying, “Don’t be afraid to suck.”
I understand what they are getting at. First drafts are rough. They are not polished. They are filled with inconsistencies, info dumps, clumsy wording, misspellings, boring dialogue, and all kinds of structural problems.
But in my way of seeing things, they are not shit. Shit’s not the early stages of something. It’s the final stages of something. The only thing shit’s good for is as fertilizer for growing something else.
When a sculptor builds up clay and forms some basic shapes—a head shape here, an arm shape there—they don’t call the roughing-out process shit. Even if the dimensions might not be exactly right at first. Even if it lacks proper texture. It’s not shit. It’s just the first stage of sculpting.
When Bob Ross would begin a painting with some splashes of blue over here and some green along this side and a dab or two of red over there, he didn’t call it shit. He was just laying out where everything would go. It’s simply part of the process. A crucial part of the process.
So too are rough drafts. So what if you’ve got six different characters named Michael (I’ve done that), and your protagonist wields a Glock in chapter three, but it’s transformed into a Ruger in chapter fourteen? Who cares if your narration is filled with passive voice and keeps slipping from past into present tense? It’s a rough draft. It’s okay. It’s par for the course. But it’s not shit.
A rough draft is an essential part of the process. You can’t edit what you haven’t written. And the roughness isn’t shit. It’s just rough.
Why am I so averse to calling rough drafts shitty? Because calling them that can easily discourage fledgling writers from finishing a story.
It can trigger writer’s block in more experienced writers. If an author’s entire first draft is going to be shit, why should they bother? Why spend weeks or months or years on a first draft if it’s going to be a steaming pile of shit?
When really it’s not a steaming pile of shit. It’s just a pile of partially formed clay. It’s rough splashes of color on a canvas giving you an idea of where everything could go. And you can change it later.
Writing is a process. It’s a long process with several stages, regardless of whether you are an outliner or an organic writer. Don’t be afraid to write a rough draft that’s rough. That’s why we call it a rough draft.
But don’t think that you’re wasting your time writing a bunch of shit that you’re probably going to toss later. It’s not shit.
You have to write the rough draft so that you have something to work with. A sculptor can’t sculpt until the clay’s been built up into a basic shape only vaguely resembling the final product.
Sometimes we have to explore some dead ends in our writing before we come up with the better ways for our story to go. That’s okay. It’s a normal part of the process.
Be gentle with yourself as a writer. Be gentle with your work. Keep pushing yourself to finish the draft of whatever you’re working on. And know that while it may be rough, it’s not shit.
If you can’t think of where to take the story next, just start typing whatever comes up in your mind. It might be rough, but it’s not shit. It might turn out to be a dead end, but you won’t know until you push through your writer’s block. And that dead end will lead you to something better.
Just keep writing. And trust the process.