The First Draft: A Lesson In Overthinking

erasing a mistakeAs with anything else, the first draft will be the hardest to write, but it shouldn’t be. Your first draft should be the easiest. You’re setting up a framework that can be moved around. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that every word matters, but you have a free pass on the first draft. Write what you want down and try not to read over it while you’re writing. You can read over the content when you’ve completed this stage.

To better illustrate this point, here is a before and after paragraph from “Luck of the Walden.” I’ve copied this directly from my notes, without any initial edits, so it’s not perfect (but again it’s not meant to be).

Attempt 1

“You’re up.” I hate this part, but it’s what I get paid for. A quick in and out nothing to worry about. I just need to focus. Get it together. Take a deep breath and just push the buttons. It’s not that hard. It’s cold out and my hands are cold, but that doesn’t stop me from taking off my gloves and pressing the keypad with ym fingertips. seven digit combination from the roof. nine keys. no sweat. I play some music to clearn my head and close my eyes. What’s the number? I pull out my tool and place it on the door. This is all for show because I don’t know what exactly this thing does other than stick to a door. I spin the knob coutn back from three and press the first 9 numbers that comes into my head. The lights turn greena dn the door opens. I love this job.

After you have your work down, let it rest for a day or so. This gives your brain time to simmer and for you to forget what you put down. Trust me, when you pick it back up, you will remember where you were going.

Side note: If you ever feel stuck in a particular part of the story, give it a rest and re-read the last few pages. You’ll be surprised at what you can conjure up, after you’ve given your story time to simmer.

It will not be perfect and that’s okay. Every writer I’ve every talked to says the same thing about first drafts. They look at their work and say, “That’s it, I’ve lost my talent.” Then, after many revisions, they start to feel better about their work. When the time comes to submit, they have something they’re proud of, but pride comes later. Humility and determination are what you need to focus on now.

Attempt 2

“You’re up.”

I hate this part. I can handle the stress of being caught and running from the cops, but having this prick leering over my shoulder is bothersome. Every time I get a job they have someone new trying to learn my secret. I charge a lot and I’m sure they’d love to cut me out of the equation, but it’s what I get paid for. I guarantee a quick in and out with nothing to worry about. Just as long as the neanderthals they set me up with don’t touch anything.

I just need to focus. Get it together. This is how this works.

The fresh snow crunches under my foot on the rooftop. It’s been coming down all day, but thankfully it’s settled down now. There are still no stars in the sky. I like the stars. They calm me down. I take my gloves off and breath hot air into my fists. I need to touch the keypad for this to work. Having no fingerprints works well in this line of work. I press play and the buds in my ears trance out my negative thoughts. Just a solid bassline and two shots of whiskey is all I need.

The keypad is flaked with white powder, but the numbers are plainly visible. I pull out my “tool” and stick it to the door. This is purely for show.

“What’s that for?” asks the nanny over my shoulder.

“You do you and I’ll do me. How about that sweetheart?”

I connect the two loose wires onto the keypad and press some numbers on my “tool” while I count backwards from ten. I feign interest in the device in my hand until I hit one. I punch in the first seven numbers that enter my head and the red light on the keypad turns green. I smile as the door opens without any resistance.

I love this job.


Studying the first and second attempt, you can see how I flesh some things out. Instead of saying it’s cold, I show there is snow on the ground. The reader will know it’s cold. It’s better the show than tell. Also, I added some dialogue to give a little depth to the scene and show the interaction between the two people on the roof. I also looked to improve the overall quality and give the main character, Kit, a voice of his own. You know he needs to stay focused (positive) and he’s putting on a show to hide something that he can naturally do.

A reader will appreciate learning more about a character by discovering details instead of flat out listing descriptions and attributes (known as bald exposition).

Tune  in next time, when I’ll go over a simple way to be a better writer.

Richard T Meeks II © 2012


One thought on “The First Draft: A Lesson In Overthinking

  1. Great advice. I agree about the first draft. Just write.

    I think struggling writers sometimes see a published novel and compare it to their first draft, thinking, “Man, I suck.”

    That’s akin to looking at a movie star’s photograph and thinking your complexion is horrible and your body misshapen. Just like we don’t get to carry around a professional make-up artist, a lighting team, and a photoshop artist everwhere we go, struggling writers don’t have a team of agents, editors, and copy editors standing by to help make our every world look brilliant.

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