Don’t Look Down: On Writing a First Draft

Posted by on Sep 26, 2012 in Lists, Writing & Reading | 160 comments

"Don't Look Down" by Caryn Caldwell - On how to fool yourself into finishing your first draft.Here’s the thing about first drafts: They are fun, but they are also scary. They are messy and muddled and awkward and hard. They have no guarantee. And they can make perfectionists like me very, very uncomfortable.

But they are worth it for the times when everything works and, anyway, they have to be done in order to get to revisions. Even on the difficult days.

And those days do come.

Unfortunately, there’s no category for Personal Cheering Section in the help-wanted ads, and the cats would rather sleep on the couch than rah-rah-rah me into getting all the new words written. So when I’ve used up my last jar of inspiration, and my motivation has fled, I have to flail those pom-poms myself.

Throughout my recent two-month long frenzy of creative chaos — otherwise known as a first draft — I did just that. To be specific, I built a page of reminders to look at any time my typing lagged. As the manuscript grew, so did my list, because I learn new things every time I write a book or, more likely, I learn the same things over and over, forgetting in between.

Here, prettied up for your sake, and shared in case it provides inspiration (perhaps to those embarking on NaNoWriMo), is my memo to myself:

Tell a good story.

Write now. Revise later.

Have fun. Smile. And then send a knife hurtling toward your protagonist.

Go on. She can take it.

Forget layering in emotion, setting, symbols, and theme for now. This is an empty tortilla, baby. Only one floppy layer to be had. Fill it later.

At some point — usually three days — it will be harder to stop than it is to keep going.

Until then, write it anyway.

You have finished books before. You will do it again.

Probably even this one.

Comparing an untamed first draft to a previous book’s reworked, polished, final form is like comparing a supermodel’s eighth grade school picture with her Vogue spread. Not fair. Everyone looks awkward at the beginning. The pretty comes later.

The book will not be perfect.

The book will not be perfect.

The book will not be perfect.

But it can be fixed. That’s what revisions are for.

Just type.

Don’t look down.

How do you convince yourself to keep going on difficult writing days?

  • mima tipper

    Thanks for sharing, Caryn, I know your focus is first draft, but all of your positive tips are just the kind of reminder/kick-in-the-pants I need to help me with the “looking down” I’m doing now as I roll up my sleeves for my next round of revisions:-D

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Good luck with your revisions! I hope they’re going well. I’m in that stage right now, too. It’s my favorite part of the process because it’s so fun to see the book take shape.

  • Monica

    Caryn, THANK YOU. Just what I needed to hear! I’m sloshing through my WIP and hating how ugly it is. But, you’re right, revisions will come later. Both your tortilla and your Vogue model metaphors are spot on!

    • Caryn Caldwell

      So glad you enjoyed it! And ‘sloshing’ is the perfect word for it. Good thing slow, messy progress is still progress! Good luck with your WIP! I hope it all comes together in the revisions! That’s when I think it really starts to become a book.

  • Sarah Hipple

    Just finished a first draft! That ending was killing me for similar reasons – too scary! I just pushed through (after futzing about for quite some time).

    • Caryn Caldwell

      Woohoo! Congratulations on finishing your draft! That’s fantastic! (Yes, I know it was a week or two ago. Sorry. I didn’t get your notice until recently.) Anyway, good luck with your revisions. I bet the book will be fantastic!

  • Emily


    I know how you feel! First drafts are rough – I, too, am a perfectionist when it comes to writing. On a positive note, being a perfectionist is motivation to continue editing and revising until it’s right!

    • Caryn Caldwell

      First drafts are so hard on perfectionists, aren’t they? I do love your point, though, about how it comes in handy during revisions! So true! “Good enough” usually isn’t actually good enough for publishing, so that perfectionistic streak is really important.

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