Just How Rough Can A First Draft Be?

Anne Lamott called them shitty first drafts.

On this site, I’ve called them fun and messy first drafts.

It’s common writing advice that the first draft of a story should just be a “word vomit” (a phrase I heard at a writer’s festival last month) onto the page.

In a first draft, anything goes.

While it’s a tip thrown about in just about every writing advice book, blog, talk or otherwise, some writers still have trouble with the idea of letting it all hang out.

It’s for those writers I’m going to do something that, quite frankly, scares the crap out of me.

I’m going to show just how rough my first drafts are.

rough drafts fiction first draft

One of my greatest fears is dying and people getting into my office and seeing my works in progress or old abandoned stories before they’re polished.

My writing process sees me bash out a rough draft as quickly as possible. The excerpts I’m using in this post are from a novella I finished this week. It’s for the first book in a new horror series I plan to be putting out late 2017. I did the 35K first draft in 9 days – and it shows.

I turn off the spell check as I type. I type like a crazy person, and the faster I write, the more mistakes I make, so when aiming for a speed draft, I don’t want those wiggly lines distracting me.

I just put the words out as they come to me during the creative flow. I tell instead of show. I swear (the characters in this story are prone to their own bad language, so some will remain). My prose is awkward, my descriptions ridiculous. I’m not even sure some of these are real words!

In these screenshots, you’ll see my rough draft files in Scrivener. That’s a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, arranged with a general action, rest, action, rest scene pacing. You might notice I also label this an “alpha draft” which shows me that it’s not even 1st draft quality. This is seriously cringeworthy stuff, but that’s OK!

example of shitty first draft 1

Every sentence needs to be fixed. I expect I’ll be restructuring at least a third of the structure, adding in one completely new setting and I’m not even sure if I’ll keep one of the support characters at all.

The main character is obsessed with becoming a musician in the beginning of the book, but I forgot about that in the middle and the end. The same character broke his wrist around half way, but again, that’s forgotten in the end. Who knows if any of that will make it into the next draft?

It’s a red hot mess!

But it’s the first stage of the process, figuring out what the story is (one of the most difficult parts of the process) and it’s done.

The story is told.

I celebrated that mess. It was a blast to write!

I now have something to edit.

It’s not even close to being a book, but with it, in all its shittiness, I’m one huge step closer to getting a new book done.

Why this Mess is So Important?

Writing a mess quickly not only gives you a raw product to shape in a much shorter time, it also frees your creativity.

By allowing yourself to suck, indeed, in expecting and even trying to suck, there’s just no job for your inner critic to do at this stage. You’re only there to see what happens when you type. And most of the time, you’ll find the gems inside that mess come phase two.

Sit down. Turn off your spell check and make a big, ugly mess as quickly as you can.

You have permission to write rubbish.

You don’t need to show it to anyone – God knows, just putting this post together and showing off my rough work is giving me heart failure. My anxiety is my gift to you. You too can suck as much as this.

If you’re brave enough, share your best terrible first draft excerpts below in the comments. 🙂

Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
Kate Krake
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2 Responses to “Just How Rough Can A First Draft Be?

  • Thank you for sharing your mess, Kate. I keep getting hung up on the first drafts (there are many of them on my computer) because part way thought I realize that I’m writing crap and I set the story aside or I spend an inordinate amount of time going back and fixing things before I can go on. I will keep your post in mind as I write my messy first drafts. Make that my messy alpha drafts!

    • Kate Krake
      6 months ago

      Jan, I’m so happy this has inspired you to embrace that crap and finish your story. You’ve made my fear of sharing this raw material totally worth it!
      All the best! Let me know how this new found freedom works out for you 🙂

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