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First Drafts are Messy.

Updated: May 1, 2021

One of the greatest benefits of writing a truly awful, lousy, no good first draft is that it can only get better from there. (Martha Alderson)

Every time.

It happens every, single time.

The despair of looking at a blank page. Wondering, where do I start. How do I begin?

In fact, I’m doing it now. I write. Then read it over it. Then delete it and try again. Not this bit. This bit made it in the article.

Nearly four years ago, I made a commitment to be serious about my writing. To learn the craft and to refine my writing. To work towards my goal: to become a published author.

I’m working towards this goal as I work on my first novel. However, my writing goals have branched out. I’m writing short stories and submitting them to literary magazines. I'm also entering short story competitions. Winning a writing competition would be pretty awesome too. I could funnel my winnings back into my bank account and recoup the funds I’ve used for workshops and courses. A win can also help me maintain my habit. Book buying. I buy a lot of books.

Recently, I completed an online course on writing conflict with Cate Kennedy. The course was run by the NSW Writer’s Centre. I’m a big fan of Cate Kennedy. I love her short stories and for me, her talent sits right up there with, Joyce Carol Oats and Alice Munro. The course ran over four days and each day we were given a 250-word writing assignment. Every time I sat down to write, my chest tightened, and my brain froze.

The good thing is that I’m aware of this and have reflected on why it happens. I can sum it all up in one little loaded word. Perfectionism. That’s it. Pure and simple. I want it to be great. I want to write work that is crafted correctly. I want to get it right. In this case, I wanted to impress Cate Kennedy.

We begin to judge our work too early and think we need to achieve perfection. Inevitably writer’s block will come knocking because we can’t meet those expectations. We need to give ourselves permission to fail so we have the freedom to explore, experiment and improve. (Lynda R Young)

You cannot do this in your first draft. Not even in the second, or third draft. I know that; well, my mind does. I just need to remind my heart.

To help me get past the blank page freeze or constant ‘do-over’. I remind myself that first drafts are messy. Jodie Picoult says, you can’t edit a blank page, but you can always edit a bad page. I have read quite a bit on first drafts and have developed a way that helps me get those words on paper first. For me, the fun stuff is in the editing because there is no longer a blank page; just wonderful words and sentences waiting to be re-shaped into a story. You have something to work with.

The first draft is a skeleton…. just bare bones. The rest of the story comes later with revising. (Judy Blume)

These are the steps I take to help me get the words onto the page so I can get to the fun stuff. I'm focusing on how I write my short stories. For me, short stories are my professional development as a writer. They are my training for the big prize. My novel.

1. I plan. For my short stories, these are simple. I find the right names for my characters. I give them an age, an occupation, some basic physical characteristics and three words that sum up their personality. I place them in a setting.

2. Every main character gets a GMC: Goals, Motivation and Conflict. Remember short stories usually only have two to three characters

3. I use visual inspiration when I write. I place pictures that are significant to my story in front of me.

4. I jot down a basic narrative arc.

5. Before I begin, I tell myself that this first draft will be messy. To get over it and just do it. I do have to be quite firm with myself.

6. I write my first draft by hand. I find that the simple act of holding a pencil and scratching words across a page takes the pressure off. It’s like doodling.

7. I step away and leave it to simmer. Usually for a day. Sometimes a few hours.

8. Then I type it up.

9. I step away a second time and leave it to simmer. Usually for a day or two.

10. I start to edit. The fun stuff.

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down. (Kurt Vonnegut)

There is one more point I’m going to finish with. Life is about learning. The reason I love writing, other than telling a good story and living vicariously through my characters, is that I am discovering and learning new things every time I write. Every—single—time. Practice does make perfect. But also, being kind to yourself is essential as well. Note to self!

Now—take the bull by the horns, or should I say, laptop by the keys, and get that first draft done. You already have a gift as a writer because you write.

Happy writing 🌸

Image courtesy of Gorodok495 @

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