The hardest thing about writing a novel is just making it to the last page. There’s a special circle of hell populated by all the unfinished manuscripts that could have been international bestsellers but, for nebulous reasons known only to their writers, never made it past page fifty. Don’t let your book’s potential rot away for all of eternity.
To help you get your words down on the page, we’re going to explore the writer Anne Lamott and her “shitty first draft” theory, a liberating practice that gives you a story to work with—the most important step in getting your novel out into the world.
Where do “shitty first drafts” come from?
“Shitty first drafts” are the essential first step in the writing process originally attributed to the memoir and writing guide Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. In her book, she says:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
The idea is that you allow yourself to write a novel that’s absolute rubbish and worry about making it palatable later. Instead of striving to produce a product equal to the ones you see on the shelves of your favorite bookshop, you give yourself the freedom to just get words down on paper.
Why is the shitty first draft important?
By giving yourself permission to create a crappy first draft, you free yourself from the inner critic who’s constantly telling you that your work isn’t good enough.
Most unfinished novels are lost to the world because writers get discouraged and shift their attention to other projects, instead of fighting against the tide of exhaustion and disappointment.
But what they often don’t realize is that this is what a rough draft is: messy, unfocused, unstructured, unpublishable, often 60% illegible, stained with tea and tears, a complete abysmal failure in every way except one—the only one that really matters: it exists. And by simply existing, your rough draft gives you material to shape into your beautiful final draft.
The writer Shannon Hale also ascribed to this idea when she said:
“When writing a first draft, I have to remind myself constantly that I’m only shoveling sand into a box so later I can build castles.”
All writers struggle with shitty first drafts, but they know that all great fiction begins with a single word on a piece of paper. Eventually, one small idea can become an entire book.
Remember: your shitty first draft isn’t a novel—that’s not its purpose. Your rough draft is your artistic medium, your clay which you can then shape into the story it’s meant to become.
Steps to writing your own perfect shitty draft
It’s not easy to let yourself unleash your creative potential when you want it to look perfect right away. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when creating your own “shitty draft”—which will be perfect in its own way simply because it exists.
Embrace quantity over quality
I know, I know, but hear me out. When you’re writing your first crappy draft, the first step is to get as much material out on paper as possible. Remember: you can’t edit a blank page.
Fill your pages or your screen up with whatever story elements come to mind, even if they seem ridiculous or unfocused. If you write five pages and only end up using one, that’s still one finished page—more than if you hadn’t written anything at all.
While it can be disheartening to write material that you don’t end up using in your final draft, remind yourself that this work isn’t wasted. All you’re doing is creating sediment that you can sift through to find the real treasure within.
Feed your stream of consciousness
Whether you’re a plotter—someone who meticulously blueprints their story before writing; a pantser—someone who discovers their story as they go; or somewhere in between (a “plantser”), you’ll get the most from your “shitty first draft” process if you pour out everything that comes into your head.
Write without second guessing yourself or worrying about sparkling literary devices; this can come later, when you go back and edit (we’ll touch on revising later in this article).
Instead, try and knock down the filters between yourself and the words you write down, allowing yourself the full range of material you have to work with.
Find the diamonds in the debris
“Shitty first drafts” have a way of leading to unexpected treasures—the inspired, organic moments that stay with readers long after the book is closed. When you tap into your deepest stream of consciousness in this way, you’ll find that the true heart of your plot, characters, and theme comes through in surprising ways.
This is because you’ve let go of the reins and learned to trust your characters and story.
On the “shitty first draft” process, Stephen King famously said:
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
This means that you write your first draft within your own mental sanctuary, and do your editing with your readership in mind. Once you reach the editing process, you can slough off all the unnecessary material you’ve accumulated to reveal the crystalline character development and plot structure underneath.
How do you revise a shitty first draft?
Revision is one of the most rewarding parts of the writing process. This is where you get to take the malleable raw material you’ve written in your first draft and carve it into something powerful.
Let’s look at the core steps to revising the first draft of your novel or short story.
Do not skip this step. After you’ve written your first draft, take a big step back from the writing process. You’ve poured your heart into this work, which means you’re currently too close to look at it with an objective eye.
For a novel manuscript, try to take at least two weeks off before going back in with a fine-tooth blade. For a short story, try to give yourself a break of a weekend.
This might not always be possible—for example, if you’re working with a tight deadline—but do what you can to give you and your story some recuperative space. After all, you’ve earned yourself a break.
Examine the big picture
Once you’ve returned to your manuscript, take a wide-lens look at the overall plot.
Do you have all your pieces—inciting incident, major plot points, rising action, midpoint, climax, falling action, and so forth—in place? Does your protagonist undergo a deep internal change between the beginning and end of the story? Has the dramatic question been satisfactorily answered, and the theme successfully conveyed to the reader?
Before you worry too much about the way your individual sentences are put together, check to make sure your story is working.
You can do this by making a note of each scene and checking it against a story arc like the three-act structure, the five-act structure, or Freytag’s pyramid.
Some writers like to use flash cards for this so you can move them around as you explore the trajectory of your plot.
Fortunately, we have a ton of useful articles in our writing academy to help with this step!
Look at your rhythm
Once you’ve (gently) kicked your story into shape, you can take a closer look at the way each chapter, paragraph, and sentence is put together.
This means checking for things like: is your dialogue realistic, engaging, and properly punctuated? Have you scrapped any unnecessary dialogue tags and made the most of the ones that remain? Does your story contain any thematic symbols and motifs?
Most importantly—how do your sentences flow? Is the language beautiful and engaging? Try reading your work out loud; it should sound smooth, consistent, and poetic.
The most challenging concept for any writer: approaching your own work with the same encouragement and compassion that you would something written by a friend. Writers are notoriously hard on themselves, striving for perfection in every paragraph. Be kind.
The process of creating, editing, and finalizing a first draft isn’t easy, so remember to be patient with yourself during each of these steps.
All art forms are a constant learning experience, and a journey—not a destination. Sometimes you may need to remind yourself that you’re still learning.
Let “shitty first drafts” be your gateway to a polished novel
Completing a first draft of a manuscript is one of the most challenging things for any writer—but it’s the only way forward to the more exciting stage of holding a polished, published novel. The best way to do this is to kick your inner critic to the curb and remind yourself that writing is supposed to be fun.
When you allow your words to come pouring out, you’ll find that what you write is more honest, authentic, and engaging for both you and the reader.