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Get Messy With Your First Draft

Rough up your first draft to get to the good stuff. by Elizabeth Sims

As Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” For years, I didn’t understand. When I started writing fiction seriously, I kept trying to get it right the first time.

Every night after clocking out from my job in a bookstore, I’d sit at my favorite coffee shop with a yellow pad and the pens I collected from publishers’ reps, and carefully work on my first novel. I’d write my minimum 300-word requirement, staying inside the lines and squeezing out every word with great thought and deliberation. Grant me, at least, that I was disciplined: I counted my words, and if I got to 299, I wouldn’t go back and add “very” to a sentence—I had to at least begin the next one.

By that method, I managed to produce quite a lot of pages. But guess what? My prose didn’t consistently swing, sizzle or startle. It took me a long time to figure out Hemingway’s hidden meaning, and longer still to apply it. Over time, as I got rougher with my first drafts, my finished work got better and better.


Why does a coherent first draft give birth to a stilted finished product? Because it means you haven’t let it flow. You haven’t given yourself permission to make mistakes because you haven’t forgiven yourself for past ones. Admit it: Unless your throttle’s wide open, you’re not giving it everything you’ve got.

One day I realized that creativity in writing isn’t a linear process, even though we read in a linear fashion and the words must go on the page one after the other; even though we must put our thoughts and words in order so the reader can make sense of them.

Writing, in fact, is the only art that is literally one-dimensional. If you can be gut-level honest with yourself, you’ve really got a shot at your readers. And the only way to find that honesty is to not overthink it.

For your writing to come alive—to be multi-dimensional—you must barter away some control. The rewards are worth it.


Ignore sequence while writing your first draft. Beginning writers will often say, “I’ve got the basic story figured out, but I don’t know how to present it so it hangs together. I’m never sure what should come next.”

Nothing is as freeing as writing what comes to mind next, not necessarily what must come next. Transitions are unimportant. Hey, don’t take my word for it—trust John Dos Passos, Patricia Highsmith, Mark Twain and William Shakespeare. Exposition is always less important than you think it is. Just focus on what happens next.

Hemingway didn’t mean, though, that if you begin with crap, dung or merde, you’ll end up with something far better without much effort. He also didn’t mean that it’s OK to start with a weak premise.

He meant that the first execution of your ideas must be as unfettered as possible. Which will result in—yes!—some crap: false starts, pretentiousness, clunky images and clichés. Fine. Get them out now. They’ll contaminate the good stuff only until you get around to your second draft.


Relax, physically and mentally. If, as I do, you write your first drafts longhand, consider your pen a paintbrush. Hold it relaxed in your hand and move it from your shoulder, instead of with your fingers. Your whole arm will move freely, and you’ll pour out the words, as well as banish carpal tunnel syndrome all to hell.

Legibility is overrated. Remember that.

The common wisdom in writing workshops is that you shouldn’t stop to revise. But let’s be honest: That’s unrealistic because sometimes you really do see another possibility right away, and you should be free to pursue it. I recommend over-writing as you go.

If, in a single moment, you think of two different ways of saying something, just write both, one after the other. Later you’ll be able to decide which is better.

Write a box around a phrase; stack two competing adjectives atop each other; make notes in the margin. I use the margins for research notes such as, “what’s position of Sirius over L.A./August?”

Fresh sheets aren’t just for motels. Use paper! I’m a big believer in using exactly the amount of natural resources you need, and no less. If you want to go off on a new tangent that’s longer than a sentence, rip off your current page and start a fresh one. Never crowd a new thought into a crevice of the page you’re on.

And for the love of God, don’t wait for the new thought to fully form before you put it down. More often than not, as soon as you write the first shard of that new thought, it’ll work itself to fullness as you write. And that’s the magic we all live for, isn’t it?

If you want to add a word or a block of text, don’t stop at using carats to show an insert. Circle stuff, draw arrows, loop one piece of text into the middle of another. And keep going. If it’s instantly obvious that one version of a word, sentence or graph is better, strike out the bad one and go on without looking back.

If you compose on a keyboard, make the “return” button your best friend: Set off a new idea by hitting two carriage returns. Let your fingers splash on the keyboard. Let typos stand. Don’t use the cut and paste functions while creating a first draft.

Note that I’m not telling you to write as fast as you possibly can, as in speed for speed’s sake. No. Take time to pause and reflect. Then take whatever comes without judging it too much.

Why’s it so important to suspend judgment when writing? Because that freedom opens you to the surprising stuff you never saw coming; stuff that makes you smile as you sit there in the coffee shop, your mug of joe cooling because you’ve forgotten to take a sip in 15 solid minutes.

When beginning a writing session, new authors often feel that they must jump off to an excellent start, when all they really need is to start. In this, there’s no difference between me and you.

Often I have to slog through crap to produce decent writing, especially if I’ve laid off from it while doing revisions. But I never despair, having learned that if I just keep going, I’ll get to someplace worthwhile.


If you’ve practiced slovenliness with a liberal hand, you’ll be delighted at how much fun your second draft will be. After I’ve got a chapter or two roughed out, I go from my handwritten pages to my PC, where I edit and rewrite as I go, adding new text and omitting what—I can now clearly see—doesn’t work.

Thus I establish the rough rhythm that works for me: a couple of days writing longhand, then a day at the old PC. Some authors work through their entire manuscript in longhand before sitting down to type, and that’s dandy, too. Most beginning writers cling to every word they’ve written. But if you practice looseness and receptivity when writing your first draft, the day will come during revisions when you realize you have a surplus of good writing to sort through. You’ll know joy.

I just took a spin through a couple of my old Writers at Work volumes (The Paris Review Interviews). Along with George Plimpton’s interview of each famous author, the Review reproduces pages from their drafts.

I studied some of these:

CYNTHIA OZICK: Her handwritten draft page is a beautiful mess, containing almost more strike-outs than unscathed text.

RALPH ELLISON: He used a typewriter, then marked up his pages with a ruthless hand.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: His handwritten page from “The Battler” shows only one cross-out. However, between that and the published story, the passage shows subtle but significant differences.

During the course of writing six novels, I realized that the days when the truth shone brightest were the days my pen flowed the freest and messiest across the pages. And I was rewarded with longer and longer satisfactory passages.

It’s paradoxical that giving up control rewards you with what you seek most: concise, insightful work.

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