ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): F for First Drafts

Posted by on Sep 21, 2014 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

pubpic2Tell me if this sounds familiar: You come home after a long day, handle whatever household chores need handling, and excitedly sit down at your computer to write. Adrenaline pumping, mind racing, you’re certain that person, incident, or image you encountered on your way to/from the office is the perfect inspiration for a great story. And so, you write for a while – maybe you forget to do that thing for work, maybe you forget to eat dinner, maybe you look at the clock and realize you need to wake up in three hours. Doesn’t matter. What you’ve written, pure gold. The next day, you come home, handle whatever household chores need handling, and excitedly sit down to go over what you’d written the night before…

…and it’s awful. Your protagonist’s development is all over the place, could be three different characters. Your plot is melodramatic on Page Seven, like watching water boil on Page Nine. Your descriptions are cluttered and over-done, then they’re non-existent.

You X out the document and right-click the file. Your cursor hovers over DELETE.

Every writer experiences this. The ones that are still writers experience it over and over and fight through it because that’s what first drafts are for. They’re supposed to be messy. They’re supposed to be disconnected. They’re supposed to be missing something.

In Composition, many teachers assign “discovery drafts” as the first stage of the writing process. These are focused free-writes, the only guideline being that you stick to a chosen topic. These discovery drafts are not supposed to come out polished or organized. In fact, if they do, they’re done wrong. The goal is to get all of your ideas on paper in a totally natural, unfiltered, uninhibited way. If you have a new idea, a better direction for your topic, you’re encouraged to break off mid-sentence – no period necessary – to pursue that direction. This method works great in the first-year writing classes I teach, but it works even better in the fiction I write.

When you write first drafts with guidelines, when you think you have a final, refined picture of your story in your mind and try to conform only to that vision, you miss out on the limitless possibilities your creativity can offer. So it behooves you to attack a blank page with a stream-of-consciousness approach, to get every poetic detail, every witty piece of dialogue, every unforgettable character onto the page, with complete and utter disregard for organization, clarity, and polish. We teachers talk about “writing to learn.” That’s what this is. By getting all your ideas out in this fashion, you learn what it is you’re really trying to say. You can see every direction your writing can take. Inevitably, you discover the true shape of your story.

I’ve written more terrible first drafts than I can count. Early on, it frustrated me, but eventually, I realized just how much gold can be hidden in plain sight among the garbage. Which means a bad first draft is actually a good first draft. So I encourage you: look forward to your messes.

Once in a while, you find your story is more polished than you thought. Apply some line edits, cut a little, add a little, and you’ve got a solid second draft.

Other times, you’ve got two separate stories. Though they deal with the same general idea, a quick read-through leads to the realization that each half of your disaster can potentially stand on its own. Separate them, draw each one out, and see what you’ve got.

And then sometimes, your eyes fix on one description, one minor event, one line or phrase that sparks something in your mind, sending you off into another six-hour binge during which you forget all about the turkey burning in the oven and the black haze that’s taken over your apartment.

If out of thousands of words the only thing you save is one line, and that one line inspires a publishable story, isn’t it worth it? That’s why it’s so important to write freely: you never know which line will be that line.

“Writing is re-writing” (another teaching cliché), so your story shouldn’t really begin to take shape until the second draft anyway. In that case, unleash your imagination. Ignore all the rules of written English, forget all about structure and pace, write two thousand words in one sentence with no conscience. Be open to taking risks and making mistakes. Be willing to get lost in each and every new idea. Pretend you’re behind your favorite bush outside your favorite bar, and just let it flow.

And when you sit down to read your draft the next day or the day after that, if it’s a giant illegible mess, don’t stress. You’re right where you’re supposed to be.



Michael DeStefano received his MFA from Fairfield University in 2012.  He currently teaches first-year writing at Fairfield, LaGuardia Community College, and Queensborough Community College. ABC’s of Writing

1 Comment

  1. Professor Destefano is a very passionate and selfless professor and deserves to be recognized for it. He went above and beyond to help each student by making sure that his students fully understood the topic that was presented.
    I enjoy reading every piece written by you.Your very passionate,intelligent, inspiring in what you teach.

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