Why Your Rough Draft Must Suck

Must. I’m not saying it will suck or that it’s likely to suck. I’m saying that it must suck. Your first draft must suck if you are going to do your best work.

I used to fight so hard against this idea and my writing suffered because of it. I tried to get the first draft perfect because it was a way of stroking my ego. I wanted to be able to tell people later, “Oh, this? This came fully formed out of my head, exactly like you see it here.”

So many of us writers make this mistake, and the irony of it is that readers almost never care how or why we write what we write. They care about whether they enjoy it. They care about whether it means something to them.

(I have a pet theory that the only people who sincerely care about the inner workings of a writer’s mind are other writers who are looking for something they can steal.)

Set your ego aside and let your first draft suck. If you don’t do that, all you’re doing instead is forcing yourself to write the first two or three drafts in your head before you commit the fourth or fifth to the page.

The problem with writing all those drafts in your head is that is that your ideas look completely different up there than they do on the page. Once your ideas are on the page, you can see how they interact with each other, and it becomes more obvious which ones can survive in the wild and which ones can’t.

Many writing teachers have told me that the first draft is how the writer tells the story to herself, but in my experience it’s something even more primal than that.

I tend to write my first drafts by just throwing down ideas that I can’t get out of my head. If I’m really stuck, then I won’t even require the ideas to connect in my head before they go on the page. I’ll just throw them down, like ingredients into a bowl of nail soup, and let them sort it out amongst themselves.

For one, this helps alleviate some of the pressure up there, but two it allows me to enter a state of pure fascination. And the tragic beauty of fascination is that it’s so personal and ephemeral. Almost nobody will ever be fascinated by the same things that fascinate you in quite the same way. That’s why it’s your job as a writer to distill your fascination into something that can fascinate others.

Writing is always an act of translation, and like with any other form of translation, the output is fundamentally different from the input.

That is to say, the final, on-paper version of your story will not fascinate you the same way it did when it was just a soup of ideas. That’s okay. It will be satisfying in a different way when you see that story light up somebody else.

So here’s the good news: you can and must do whatever you want in the first draft. You must be self-indulgent. You must be playful. You must nerd out. You must spill out as much raw fascination as you can so that you have the raw materials necessary on the page to create fascination for your readers.  

That’s step one of the work. Step two of the work is to make is great. Never, ever, ever skip step one.