In her book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg says,
“First thoughts have tremendous energy. It is the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash.”
The first draft of any kind of writing is hard.
Staring at that intimidating blank page leaves lots of writers wanting to do literally anything else — including this guy right here.
There are a thousand ways to screw up the first draft of something, which has certainly happened to over the last eleven years writing twenty-one novel manuscripts. Some of them have worked out better than others, like my newest middle grade novel that came out really well in its first draft. But some have not worked out so well, like my newest young adult novel that’s such a mess I’m not even sure where to begin in fixing it.
But what I tell other writers all the time is that when it comes to the first draft of a manuscript, ultimately the way to easily guarantee instant failure is to overthink and analyze every paragraph, every sentence, every word, you put on the page.
I once had a friend who told me she couldn’t write another scene of her first draft until she went back and re-read and revised every single word she’d already written in the manuscript. This is why she always took a long time to write the first draft of anything, and it’s frankly why she rarely ever finished anything.
She expected perfection. And there’s just no such thing as perfection when it comes to a first draft.
The best thing you can do is turn off your inner editor.
In her magnificent craft book Writing Down the Bones, something a friend of mine gave me a copy of recently and that I’ve been slowly dipping into the last few weeks, author Natalie Goldberg talks in an early chapter about why it’s so important go with your first thoughts in a new piece of writing, never a second or third thought. Its those latter kinds of thoughts that can actually ruin a piece of writing that had a chance to be something great.
She suggests that authors give themselves timed exercises in which you never really think at all and just write instead. Just write whatever is in your heart. Write something. Anything. Even nonsense can lead to something of merit.
These are her rules…
“Keep your hand moving.
Don’t cross out.
Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.
Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
Go for the jugular.“
That last one is super interesting in that she suggests if you ever get uncomfortable with something you’re writing about, you should lean into it right away and never against it. Some of the best writing comes when we dig into something that’s buried deep within ourselves we’ve tried to ignore.
But notice how almost every rule above is about stifling that awful inner editor. That voice that says your writing sucks, your writing is stiff, your writing makes no sense, your writing could be so much better.
I hear that voice all the time when I’m writing the first draft of a new story or novel. I’ll hear it ten times, re-read the last paragraph I wrote, and hate it so much I struggle to get another sentence on the page.
This is death for a writer. And you’ll never finish your newest project.
The important thing is finishing your first draft. Your inner editor won’t help with that.
Your inner editor prevents you from finishing your manuscript because you don’t think it’s good enough. But you know what? I’ve said it dozens of times before, and I’ll say it again.
You can’t improve a manuscript you never finish.
What’s more useful? A brilliant novel that’s sixty percent finished? Or a messy novel that’s fully complete?
Yes, you might have more work ahead of you on that messy first draft you know is going to take months and months to make better. But at least you have a beginning, middle, and end you can actually work with.
That’s what Goldberg is getting at. And it’s what I tell writers all the time.
Your inner editor can come out when you revise. It needs to be there when you’re working on the second, third, fourth draft.
But on the first draft? Put it aside. Bury it under the ground for a while.
Instead, you need to focus only on the writing itself. Just write, write, write.
Definitely keep your hand moving. Definitely don’t think. Definitely go for the jugular.
And tell us your story!