The Shitty First Draft and Revisions

So, let’s start with a final update from NaNoWriMo2020. I hit 51,247 words before the en of November. That means I “won” NanoWriMo, and given how slowly I wrote Liam’s Doom and my dissertation, this feels amazing. I know I wanted to have the entire draft completed, but that didn’t happen. And that’s okay. I’m also not fully happy with the quality of what I have so far, an that brings me to today’s blog topic: The Shitty First Draft

What I Don’t Mean

As a teacher at the collegiate level, I have learned that students balk when you refer to writing as a “shitty first draft.” So I have to explain that I’m using a term that a textbook I had in a graduate school writing seminar used to describe the process of transforming a research paper into a publishable article. Now, this does not mean that your ideas are shitty. Nor does it mean that your writing is shitty.

So What Do I Mean

What I mean by calling something a “shitty first draft” is that it is nothing more than an unfocused and unpolished draft of what you want it to become. The ideas, the passion, and the work are all present; however, it has not been presented in the best way possible. Maybe the manuscript is too short. Perhaps it’s too long. Perhaps it suffers from grammatical errors. Perhaps you stated early on that your main character’s mother’s name was Janet, but then five chapters later, you named her Ruth. Regardless, it needs revision.

A first draft is simply that: your first attempt at drafting your project (and this is true for fiction and nonfiction). The purpose of a first draft is to get the ideas out of your head and onto your page. Once it’s complete, it has done its job.

From what I’ve learned through teaching, most people view writing like any other assignment: it has to be done. Once it’s done, they turn it in and wait for “judgment” (aka, the grade). With many things, that’s acceptable and normal, but it’s not the same with writing. Writing isn’t a solitary activity that one performs once and is done. Writing is a communicative process, and the “shitty first draft” is an important step in that process.

What Do I Do with a Shitty First Draft

Let me begin by explaining what I mean by writing is a process. There are steps. Most of us know that writing begins with brainstorming and then drafting. The “shitty first draft” is the end of that process. So what comes after that? As I tell my students and as I practice in my own writing, the next step is basic revisions. And I believe in three phases of revising:

  1. Grammar and Spelling: This is a simple, basic revision. The goal is to spot grammatical and spelling errors. Nothing more. I start here because this is often a fairly quick pass, allowing me to get one revision completed quickly.
  2. Over/Under Revision: This can take a little more time because this may require adding content or removing content. Is the piece too short or too long? Focusing on fiction, this may mean adding more scenes, extending scenes, removing scenes/chapters, or shortening scenes/chapters. Most writing should fit in some range. Most urban fantasy novels are between 65,000 and 90,000 words in length. The more famous names can produce novels up to 400,000 words. My goal is between 70,000 and 85,000 to give myself a bit of editing leeway for the third pass.
  3. Content/Plot/Argument Revision: This tends to take the longest. This is where I go through the manuscript for coherence and movement. Do the sentences make sense in the context of the paragraph? Does the paragraph make sense in the context of the scene? Am I consistent with names, places, lore, etc.? Does everything written work to advance the main plot, a subplot, and/or a character’s arc in some way? Does the story, as a whole, work?

After making those revisions, the revised first draft can be shown to others. This is scary, but writing is about communicating. And it’s essential for anything that we want to be read by others, whether it be a teacher, a supervisor at work, our peers in the field, or an audience. Feedback from other people helps us see things we may have missed. Oftentimes, we gloss over errors in our writing simply because we “know” what we intended to write, so our brain reads the intention and not the actual text. So peer review or beta reading is essential and important.

In conclusion, remember that your first draft is just that: a draft. Be proud that you completed it, but be prepared to cut it to shreds during revisions. As reminder, my debut novel, Liam’s Doom, goes on sale on 9 March 2021. You can preorder it at all major online retailers, but I do suggest bookshop.org, which allows you to support small, independent, local bookstores with your purchase!

What’s your editing process like?