There seems to be a common school of thought among writers, at least so far as I’ve seen, that holds that your first draft of anything – story, novel, poem, whatever – is always bad. But I gotta be honest here, folks: I don’t like the idea that your first draft is crap. In fact, I dislike this notion with some intensity.
Actually…I hate it. Hate hate hate it.
Your first draft is not crap. It just isn’t. Is it “publishable”? Almost certainly not. Is it “ready”? Almost certainly not. But…is it crap?
Almost certainly not.
Look, when you write, you pour a lot of yourself out onto the page. How can that be “crap”? And even if there a lot of things that need fixing, either in terms of phrasing or pacing or characterization or any other concern one might have about a piece of writing…there’s still a lot that’s good, right? Unless you quite literally replace every word in your first draft during your edit, your first draft is not “crap”. Neither is it “junk”, or “bad”.
I think that what’s called for here is a different metaphor. So: if we think of a finished book as a building, then this is what your first draft is:
That’s right. It’s not crap; it’s an unfinished building. You still have to put up walls and run plumbing and electrical and install window frames and put up the glass windows and doors and you have to paint the walls and finish the exterior and trim out the woodwork and lay carpet and all the other stuff that comes with building a building. But a building without a frame is a pile of stuff from Home Depot, and that’s not much use to anybody. Without the frame, there is no building; it’s the frame that defines the building.
Your first draft is pretty much the same. Without a first draft, you don’t have a story because you don’t have a sense of things. You don’t have a clear idea your arc or what it is that your characters are trying to accomplish or what problem they’re trying to solve. You don’t know what it is they need to learn, or how they need to change, or what things are going to happen to change them. Without the first draft to give you some idea of the story’s structure, you don’t know what kind of story it is.
So a first draft is not a pile of crap, and it does not suck. It’s an incomplete framework. You’d never try to live in a house that was just a frame on a lot, and you wouldn’t want to read a story that’s in its first-draft stage. But that’s not because the first draft sucks! It’s because the first draft is missing things, like drywall and paint and plumbing and electrical and windows and doors and trim work. There’s a reason that carpenters talk about “rough carpentry” and “finish carpentry”: the rough carpentry is the framing and basic layout, and the finish work is what makes the thing a house or a store or an office building or whatever. No carpenter ever says, “Your frame should be crap!” because that’s not how they look at these things.
That’s the way it should be for writers, in my opinion. Even the terminology is compatible: rough carpentry, rough draft. Finish carpentry, finishing work on the story. This seems to me a much more productive and healthy way to look at one’s writings-in-progress. When you finish a rough draft, you haven’t produced something that sucks; you’ve produced the frame of an eventual finished story.
Now, obviously this analogy isn’t perfect. Sometimes when we do the finish work on a rough draft for a 30-chapter novel, we might find ourselves condensing things to the point where we literally get rid of chapters 3, 5, 10, and 22. An architect supervising the construction of a 30-story building, however, isn’t going to wait until the frame is built and then decide, “OK, we’re actually going to ditch the third, fifth, tenth, and twenty-second floors.” But no analogy is perfect, and even an imperfect analogy using carpentry as its motif has got to be better than one that uses poo, right?