I started a new novel last week. I had been thinking about the story for at least two months. The characters kept popping into my mind at all hours of the day. I could see them so clearly. I felt so connected to them. I thought about them while I was driving, while I was in the shower, effortlessly seeing them in vivid scenes, some of which even brought tears to my eyes.
Then I sat down and wrote the first chapter.
It was awful.
Or at least, I felt like it was awful. I didn’t reread it too many times because I know doing that can easily suck me into self-criticism and self-doubt, not to mention actual editing, which I need to stay away from at this stage. But still. Even giving it a once-over did a number on my writerly self-esteem.
The characters were flat, the dialogue was stunted. In my mind, the story felt dark and dramatic, full of pathos and tragedy. On paper, it came across as dull and lifeless. Like I was trying to force a romantic comedy into mixing with something from Stephen King. It was weird, and not in a good way.
Fortunately, I’ve been writing seriously now for close to 15 years, so I know that this is actually normal.
When I first started writing, this was the part of the process that tripped me up the most. I would have these amazing ideas and spend weeks fleshing them out inside my own mind. During that stage, my story felt like a big epic movie that I was a part of, starring all my favorite actors and full of gorgeous imagery and stunning scenes. But then, when I would start the actual writing of the book, I couldn’t be more disappointed. The words I put down on the page didn’t even begin to measure up to what I had envisioned.
What I’ve learned in the 15 years since though, is that every writer goes through this. That’s why it’s called a “shitty first draft.” And something else I’ve learned that’s more valuable than gold—writing that shitty first draft will be A LOT more fun if you just concentrate on moving ahead with the writing and immersing yourself in the story, instead of rereading it to death and picking it apart to the point where you’re almost in tears and convinced you’re possibly the worst writer who has ever lived.
Yeah, we’ve all been there.
Experienced writers know that good writing is not the result of some genius talent that allows you to sit down and write masterpieces on your first try, each and every time. In fact, I don’t know ANY writer that produced a masterpiece while writing the first draft. Instead, experienced writers know that good writing is actually the product of lots and lots and LOTS of revisions. Good writing is the result of pushing through that shitty first draft, even when you’re convinced it’s awful, finishing it, setting it aside and giving it time to rest, and then going back for round after round of editing and rewriting.
Editing, revisions, rewriting—all of these things belong to the less glamourous side of writing. The side that demands you have patience and you wade through tedious little details, and frequent bouts of despair that you will ever get your manuscript where you want it to be. But rest assured, you will. You will get there, you just have to keep pushing through.
One other piece of advice that works wonders, which I already briefly mentioned—don’t reread your stuff too many times. The more you reread your writing, the more you will be tempted to start tearing it apart and editing it and questioning it and picking at it and then you will become a critical monster who can’t see anything clearly. Editing has its time and place, in the editing stage. And when you are still in the midst of writing your shitty first draft, you are very definitely NOT in the editing stage. When you’re writing, stick to the writing. Remind yourself that editing comes later, and let me tell you, you will get your chance to edit. In fact, by the end of the process, you will have dealt with so much editing on your story that you’ll hit a point where you might never want to see your manuscript again.
So, if you’re in the middle of writing your shitty first draft, or you’ve just begun and you’re seriously questioning whether you should even continue with this idea—KEEP PUSHING. Your writing will be messy right now. It will be confusing, and stilted, and awkward, and awful. It will be shitty. The best thing you can do is enjoy it and embrace the shittiness. Your job right now is not to make it better, it’s to get down in the trenches with it and roll around in the mess. Get all that mess and confusion out of you and onto the page, and remind yourself that part of learning how to write well is learning how to make a shitty first draft better, later.
Every writer has been there. You’re not alone. We have all experienced the self-doubt that comes along with pushing through a shitty first draft. What’s essential is that you focus on the most important thing during any birthing process: KEEP PUSHING.
Lauren Sapala is the author of Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers, a guide to help any HSP, INFJ, INFP, or introvert writer move past resistance to selling and marketing their work. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers.