5 Reasons Not to Criticize First Drafts

5 Reasons Not to Criticize First Drafts

We are our own worst critics.

One of the most daunting tasks facing writers is the task of finishing the rough draft. For many writers, the rough draft is the hardest part because they don’t know how to shut off the critical part of their brain and just finish it.

Instead, they nitpick. They rewrite the intro a hundred times. They thumb through a thesaurus looking for that one perfect word.

And six hours later they haven’t even dented their quota.

I propose we cut it out. For many reasons: it’s a waste of time, it’s counter-productive, it’s frustrating beyond belief.

If you still don’t believe me, here are five specific reasons not to criticize your first draft until it’s finished.

1. It’s called drafting for a reason. Nothing you write is set in stone. It’s not uncommon for authors to go back and revise their books for second and third editions, tweaking and changing phrasing and wording they weren’t satisfied with. And those books were already printed!

Your second draft will be better than your first and your third draft will be better than your second.

2. The delete button exists. Yes, it does. And it is a great—delete delete— And it is a magical thing.

3. You can’t see the whole picture until the first draft is done, even if your first draft sounds like it was written by a precocious middle school student with an obsession with the word ‘awesome’.

But once the outline is there and you can read your intentions between the lines of scribble, you can go back and redo the piece until it’s comprehensible and you’ve found synonyms for ‘awesome’ that make you sound all grown up (even if you aren’t, really).

4. Heat is hot. The moment only lasts so long, and you’re on a schedule. It’s vital to get the words out before the heat of the moment cools or turns stale. Write when you are inspired, and don’t stop until it’s all out, every last drop.

You can go back later and tweak, edit, revise, and perfect the work. See #1.

5. Sometimes the beauty is in the mistake. Your first draft will be entirely flawed. Terrible, messy, contradictory, inconsistent. But sometimes, when you’re really lucky, you’ll find a gem hidden in all that garbage.

And who knows? You could have been writing about the mating habits of grasshoppers and in the jumble of your first draft a beautiful gem shines out above all the rest. Maybe it’s the beginning of another story or article or poem. Maybe it’s just the place you should have started the piece to begin with. Maybe it’s a unique insight into human psychology that not even the likes of Freud or Nietszche could have dreamed up.

You just never know what’s gonna happen.

This advice is true with every kind of writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a poem, a short story, a novel, an article, website copy, marketing slogans, pamphlets, brochures, press releases, daily newspapers, or the best goddamned literary porn of all time.

Write the first draft and be considerate enough not to give yourself any grief.

At least not until the first draft is done. Then you can tear it to pieces.

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Post by Matt Herron

Matt Herron is the lead content strategist at The Phuse (http://thephuse.com). He also writes freelance journalism, short fiction, keeps a blog, and is always looking for exciting new projects. Use Twitter to get in touch with him.

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  1. You’re right Matt, I nitpic my writing and 6 hours later the hot passion has cooled and I never want to see the thing again. At least not until I get that first comment. :) I suppose our self-confidence gets better with experience, but oh my. we never seem to escape that inner critic.

  2. Great topic! I always tell myself you’ve got to start somewhere. I think this is one think that separates non-writers from writers. Many non-writers are afraid to get started. Writers just do it…

  3. Great post! One thing I’d add, though: If you’re going to be deleting great big chunks of text be sure to SAVE them. They might come in handy later, perhaps for another project.

    Just create an “archives” file on your hard-drive and store the chunks in there. Then, scroll through them from time to time. If nothing else, it should inspire you. But you may also be able to re-use them!

  4. I forwarded this to my son, who appreciated the post, but questioned the need for “…the best ______ literary porn…” line. He and I e-mailed back and forth as we discussed the pervasive use of “salty” (or irreverent) language in blogs today. What are your thoughts on the subject? Let me save others who comment on this comment the trouble: yes, I’m a puritanical nitwit.

    • Puritanical nitwits are great when they’re willing to discuss, debate and listen with open minds – seems like you’d be that type! (The nasty ones aren’t so much fun.)

      I decided years ago that if I couldn’t write without cursing, then I needed to work on improving my language skills to be just as effective without tossing in some dirty words for impact. So you won’t see much salty language around here.

      That said, I cuss like a sailor. I get that salty words are just words. They only have terrible meanings if we give them that power.

      I have no issues at all with the well-placed word – a good “bullshit” can be just the thing to express exactly the tone you’d like to. And if you only use it once in a blue moon, then all the better.

      Plus, I come from Quebec, where half the general daily language used by all sorts of professionals is cursing – swearing is as common as water up here!

      So when Matt used “literary porn,” I grinned. To me, it was the perfect choice for exactly what he wanted to say.

    • I agree with what James said, but the reason I put “the best goddamned literary porn of all time” at the end of a list that included different types of writing was to get you thinking about other options. Yes, it was written partially in jest. But I don’t think it’s outside the realm of practicality either. The list that precedes that last phrase is a likely list of things I believed readers would find themselves writing. “Normal” things like stories, poems, novels, copy, press releases, brochures, etc. However, literary porn is a good paying market and not to be discounted. Bukowski wrote literary porn. Was “goddamn” necessary? Well, it was used for emphasis. I may have a higher tolerance for language than some people, perhaps, and cussing can get old fast… but used sparingly and in the right place it is amusing and good for emphasis. And in this case I think it fits.

  5. This post is . . . ‘awesome’. ;)

    I started to exercise the practice of getting the first draft done. Just get it all out on paper — release everything. I wake up the next day and go over what I wrote. From there I can delete things, add phrases, change up words and structure. I usually have someone read it for me and from there I proceed to the next decision of editing further or publishing. I usually give it 24-48 hours until I actually publish something.

    These are all great points.

    As for the comment with L Bennet and James on salty language. I chuckled when I read this because I try so hard — yes, so hard — to not curse in my posts. But, like James said, the occasional “bullshit” placed in the right sentence at the right time can be effective. Sometimes . . . there are just no other ways to explain it.

    Believe it or not one of my professors pulled me out of the class one day and said, Paul . . . be fluent in three languages: English, sarcasm, and cursing. Just a funny story ( no need to take it seriously, but you gotta admit . . . it’s pretty true and funny).

  6. Thanks for this article! You have inspired me to go back to my languishing first draft!

  7. I used a keyword for a name says:

    This relevance to me today is astonishing! I don’t usually comment on posts – but the relevance to this made me have a necessity to comment!

    Yes, getting through the first draft is one of the hardest things… that I’m still tackling. I’ve re-written (and re-did the storyline) of my current novel over a dozen times, and I’m only one-thirds done with the first draft. Today, I was writing it, and your post (especially the part about not knowing the future until you’re done) is inspiring me to open up my notebook and go back to it right after I write this comment.

    Thanks!

  8. Thanks for all the inspired comments! I hope you can read something of mine again soon. Keep writing, people!

  9. I have found this to be true too – and very hard to do. I practically have to slap my hands to keep from going back to change things until after I have the first run-through finished. I’m getting better – even spelling (my fingers are dyslexic) and punctuation now wait until I’ve finished my draft copy. At least for a chapter.

    Thanks for confirming that I’m not the only one to struggle with this.

  10. Thanks. Excellent advice.
    I have exactly this problem. I struggle to go on leaving an obviously bad sentence or paragraph behind me, but I guess I’ll just have to do it.
    I’m thinking it might possibly help to keep two copies, a rough draft that I can just scribble on, and a ‘version 1.1′ where I can copy it out and edit the more glaring problems when I’m not feeling inspired to write new stuff.

  11. Early Conner says:

    Hehe:) Literary porn.
    That’s not all I took away from the article! But still..Hehe:)
    Early Bird

  12. So many of us has this problem, its ridiculous. It’s such a huge deal, I think it may very well be the main thing that keeps a good writer from being productive enough to make a substantial income. I think I’ve been fooling myself into believing that I’m just as productive when I edit as I go along. What’s closer to the truth is that I’ve gotten stuck in the habit. Thank you for elevating what was always a lingering suspicion that nagged at me, to a major problem that needs to be tackled head on.

  13. Great post. Or should I say ‘awesome’?

    I have a Post-It stuck to the front of my computer at all times that says WRITE CRAP. It’s to remind me to shut off my inner editor when I’m writing a first draft. Of course I don’t necessarily have to write only crap, but it gives me permission to write badly if I need to.

    I’m particularly bad at fiddling with the beginning of my novels, even though I know from experience that I will only know how to fix the beginning of my novel once the whole draft is done.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    Julie

  14. Great great advice that has been consolidated into a nice quick read. I’m writing a first draft of a novel now and letting it all hang out there posting each chapter to a blog unedited. Whenever I’m looking for advice or researching tips they all sound great. But nobody ever SHOWS how crappy a first draft actually looks like. I always assume that mine is just worse than others…my internal editor never ever shuts up! Thanks for writing this. I’ll come back to it when I can’t stand my inner editor again:)

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