What Is a First Draft Anyway?

If you talk to any writer, you’ll inevitably hear about her first draft of whatever she’s working on. When you’re starting out as a writer, the idea of a first draft seems pretty obvious: it’s the point when you have the first complete version of your story. But, as with all things in writer-land, it’s not quite that simple.

I guess you could just count the iterations and call it the “nth” draft (e.g. my 50th draft), but that would get inane after a while. I’d forget which draft I was on and simply default to calling it my draft.

No matter what approach you use, the reality is that the first version of your work is not really your first draft. Most likely, it’s in such a harried state that it could only be called your rough draft at best. It’s not from lack of trying. It’s just that your story most likely will not end up as you have originally written it.

In the Novel Writing Intensive I attended over a week ago, Robert Dugoni, one of the instructors, said that writing is re-writing. After I had finished the four-day workshop, I understood exactly what he meant. I had entered the course with what I thought was a first draft, but I came out with what is really just an extended character history that needed to wheedled down into a workable novel. Writing is re-writing, and I have a lot of that to do.

While I do outline my novels before I start, I don’t use the outline as my gospel. I write organically. I let the characters take me to where they want to go. Like real people, my characters don’t move linearly through the story. They jump around, they act irrationally, and they wreak havoc on my story structure. This means that the first cut of my novel needs some work. Okay, a lot of work.

That’s all fine and well because by the end of that first writing I have the essence of a good story on my hands. It just needs to be molded and polished so that others can enjoy it. That takes more work, more work than I just spent getting the story on paper.

Coming out of the Novel Writing Intensive, I realized that what I had been calling my first draft was not that at all. It was simply a cut of the story that needed a lot of work. A real first draft would be ready to go to the editor for a once-over that would get it ready for publisher reviews. I’m a long way away from that, but at least I know what I need to do.

Happy re-writing!

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