First Drafts Are Supposed to be Sh**ty

~ By Heather Ashby

As a former teacher of Gifted education, I’ve seen how perfectionism can paralyze writers. If my students were to attempt a novel, few would get past the first chapter. Following is some wisdom I’ve gathered along the way that helps me move past perfectionism to finish a first draft.

If you attended Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ workshops at RWA Nationals in Atlanta, you heard the following: “For a first draft, I give you permission to throw any crap at all onto your computer screen. Don’t stop. Don’t fix it. Don’t change it. Just keep writing. You will re-write, revise, and edit those words many times over. Just get them up there.”

Here are more quotes from other well-known authors, concerning first drafts:

karateStephen King: “Don’t let anybody see your first drafts. First drafts are all sh**ty.”

Anne Lamott: “Very few writers know what they’re doing until they’ve done it. The first draft is child’s play. Just write it. You can make it grown-up later.”

Natalie Goldberg: “Keep your hands moving. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. Don’t think. Don’t get logical. Lose control. Go for the jugular. You only get one chance at first thoughts and first emotions.”

Personally, I compare first drafts to scooping sand into a sandbox. I can make sand castles later, but first I need to gather the sand. Here are a few tips I’ve learned that help me keep my hands moving and the word count rising as I pile sand into my sandbox.

1.     I set in Bold Face Red any word or phrase where I’m tempted to check for spelling, if I already used it in the story, or if further research is required. I am forbidden to check it while writing. That could lead me down twisted, time-suck paths such as other chapters, the Internet, email, and Facebook. (See # 5)

2.     I don’t worry about my Overused Words. Mine are: eyes, breath, smile, laugh, oh, just, and a whole slew of cuss words. (I write about sailors.) I spend several days at the end doing a find/search for these words and change/switch them out, so that smile, laugh, grin, chuckle, a smile lit her face, humor glinted in his eyes, etc. are spaced out and used appropriately. (I keep a list to work from so I can cross them off as I use them.) I’d rather spend a day tweaking these words than lose my train of creative thought while drafting.

3.     I do the same for Viscerals. I know exactly where I need to have a character experience a physical reaction to something (fear, joy, shock, surprise, lust, etc.) But if that reaction doesn’t flow from my fingertips, I type VISCERAL and keep going. When I’m done the draft, I do a find/search for the word, VISCERAL and replace it with the right words. (Wine helps with this emotion-filled activity. You may find yourself scared or crying—or tracking down your husband for a round of “research.”) The Millennium Phrase Book For Romance Writers by Rebecca Andrews is an invaluable resource for word substitutes and visceral reactions. She gives you over 3,500 samples to inspire you to write your own. The Emotion Thesaurus – A Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is another outstanding source.

4.     I set my phone’s timer for a certain number of writing hours every day and start typing. If I take a break for anything besides writing (see #2), I have to hit PAUSE. I can check my email or do research—or eat lunch or go to work or take a nap—but I still have to write for a set number of hours that day. And the time doesn’t count until I hit RESUME. This keeps me focused on the prize—finishing the book.

The bottom line? Understand that the first draft is going to be re-worked many times over after you finish it. Think of your WIP as an oil painting. An artist lays in a sketch of the composition first, like a rough draft. Once she has the total picture, she goes back and layers in colors and depth. She works it and re-works it until she has a masterpiece. But for a rough draft? As I used to tell my Gifted students: “Rough drafts are like Outback. No rules; just write.”

Heather Ashby is a Navy veteran, Navy wife, and Henery Press author of the military romance series, “Love in the Fleet.” Her debut novel, Forgive & Forget was voted “Best of 2013” by Suspense Magazine. Book Two, Forget Me Not, a 2012 Golden Heart Finalist, released in December, 2013. In gratitude for her Army son’s safe return from Afghanistan and Iraq, Heather donates half her royalties to Fisher House Foundation in support of wounded warriors and their families. Go to for more information.

28 thoughts on “First Drafts Are Supposed to be Sh**ty”

  1. I like what you guys are up also. Such clever work and reporting! Keep up the excellent works guys I have incorporated you guys to my blogroll. I think it will improve the value of my website 🙂

  2. Oh, you are so welcome, Cara. Glad I could share with you. But, YUP, that’s me in the beginning of Book FOUR, saying the same things I did for the other 3. My husband tells me, “You’re like a broken record saying you don’t know what you’re doing. Obviously, you do. You’ve done it before. Trust yourself to do it again.” I forgot to mention another tip: No WONDER I keep saying, “but this one just reads like a soap opera.” I write my entire love story first all the way through, with very little military detail or external conflict. Then I write my bad guy story and add in the military details. Then I weave it together. (Puzzlers “puzzle” the pieces together later.) So NATURALLY for the first weeks/months, it IS going to read like just a love story. But do I remember this each time? No, I just slip back into Imposter Syndrome and say, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” I’m glad anything I may have mentioned helps, Cara. Thanks for stopping by. Write On.

  3. Wow, Heather, have you been inside my head for the last week?? I’ve been stuck in the “I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING! THIS SUCKS!” phase of this book. I really, really, really needed this reminder to just relax and trust myself, trust the process, and just write! Thanks for this timely and super-helpful post.

  4. Visceral! I love that. I struggled with this so much last year (and likely why it took my a year to write a book). I’m trying different techniques on my 2nd book. I’ve been highlighting in Scrivener, which has helped. But, I’ll definitely use some of these too.

    1. Yay, Ali, anything that helps is good. And I should be giving a shout out to Scrivener. Gwen Hernandez has done an awesome job showing ways to file ideas away or make notes to come back to things to check later. Readers, check out her SCRIVENER FOR DUMMIES for details. Personally, I found Book 2 to be SOOO much easier to write because I learned so much from obsessing over Book 1. Kind of like having children:-)
      Write On!

  5. Great post Heather! I’ve been helping out a few ‘new’ authors, and this is a really hard idea to get across. It’s going to suck. It’s going to be awful. It’s a lump of clay that you’re just mixing up and shaping, The fine details come afterward! I like your timer idea. And I use the (XXXXX?) method when I don’t know a name, or need specifics. It stands out just like red type. 🙂 Ernest Hemingway similarly wrote: ‘The first draft of anything is sh**’ and I quote him all the time.

    Just keep writing! Brenda

    1. Brenda, thanks for adding “Clay” to my list of descriptions of a first draft: Sand, oil painting, clay…One of the authors I quoted above also likened it to a Polaroid photograph (Readers would have to be old enough to REMEMBER what a Polaroid IS, however.) But when the picture is taken and you pull it from the camera, it starts developing right away…in the beginning it’s fuzzy, but it will continue to develop and eventually becomes clear. And thanks for the reminder from Hemingway. Good one. He also said, “Writing is easy. You just sit at the typewriter and bleed.”

  6. Hey, I’m thrilled if I can share any pearls of wisdom with YOU, Tracy! You are such an AWESOME writer! Each time I begin a new book and I start with the, “I don’t know what the *&^% I’m doing!” my husband reminds me that I said that about Book #1. And #2. AND #3. It’s like I revert back to Imposter Syndrome with each new venture. I have to remind myself that its’ OKAY to just type “she smiled” and keep going. Thanks for stopping by, Tracy. Write ON!

  7. Excellent tips, Heather!! I still struggle with that internal editor as I draft! It’s hard not to compare that sh**ty first draft to the best, most polished version of someone else’s work, or even your own previous books. And it’s very easy to lose an hour of writing time by pondering a clever way to say, “She smiled.” Just say “she smiled” and go back to fix it later! 😀

  8. Your writing ROCKS these days, Catherine! But I love the freshness of people starting out and being allowed to JUST WRITE. Before they know all the rules, I think they are free to express themselves. And if its going to be a book of their heart, then let it come from the heart. There’s plenty of time to tweak some things later. Thanks for stopping by, Catherine. Write ON!

  9. Great advice, Heather 🙂 This was me when I started writing at 15–I just wrote what came to me and as a result completed 4 first drafts in 2 years. Then I got too critical of my work and wasted years not finishing any manuscripts. Recently, I started concentrating on just getting the first drafts done and voila – 5 manuscripts in 18 months 🙂 And the quality must be okay–the edited versions of these manuscripts have been finalists in competitions 🙂

    PS. I LOVE the sound of what you have so far for your Book 4 🙂

  10. LOL! (Currently writing about a hero who has Sister Regina from high school living in his head – the second beer tends to shut her up for awhile, but she’s been known to smack his mental knuckles with a ruler while he’s trying to make love to the heroine.) REBEL!!! That’s all I can say. Just PLOW ON THROUGH as Ella said above. I know the voice that says, “Stop and fix this.” I’ve learned to tell it to take a powder and plow on through. I now know that when I read it the next day, a great deal of it will be surprisingly good and I can BOLD the other stuff to deal with later. The cell phone thing helps me A LOT. I need to report word count at the end of the day (Not to Sister Regina or the Brothers, but to my desktop.) And I better have more that 500 words at the end of the day (or I’m likely to give myself a knuckle smacking.) Hope any tips help you defeat those inner critics. I want your characters to be happy.

  11. Thank you, Heather, for this oh-so-timely blog post. VISCERAL. I’m starting a new book today. VISCERAL. VISCERAL. VISCERAL. I really needed this reminder. Or as I like to say, Don’t get it right, get it written! xxoooxx

    1. Oooh, Renee, thanks for that beautiful saying: DON’T GET IT RIGHT. GET IT WRITTEN! May I quote you in my workshops? Hope all goes well with the new book today! Write ON, Renee!!!

  12. After being educated by Nuns and Brothers from Grade 5 through High School….I find myself continuing to go back over chapters and snippets trying to get everything Right. The characters looking over my shoulder are NOT Amused……

  13. This is terrific, Heather. I think Anne Lamott touches on the need to be free to write sh*tty first drafts too, and it’s the core of The Artists Way, learning how to loosen up and JUST WRITE.

    My sh*tty first draft involves (among other things) throwing cliches at the wall, knowing I can scrape them off later. And I used your timer method yesterday. Brilliant!

    Off to look up the Andrews book…

    1. Talia, I LOVE “throwing cliches at the wall to possibly scrape off later!!!” May I quote you in my workshops??? Yes, Anne Lamott does use the term Sh**ty first drafts and I believe she may have coined the phrase in Bird By Bird (It’s a chapter title.) BTW, in my workshop handout, I list helpful references and have both Anne Lamott and The Artists Way listed. Glad the cell phone time is cracking the whip for you.

    1. Right, Abigail. The funny part is, I’m drafting #4 and crying out the same things I did for #1,2, and 3: “I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING! THIS SUCKS!” I have to keep going back to the mantra: Trust yourself. Trust your gut and just write. You WILL fix it later. You have before.” (But do I listen???) LOL! Glad it’s working for you! Write On!

    1. Just remember that it’s easier to edit a crappy first draft than to try to edit 300 blank pages. There are a lot of people out there with the blank pages because they don’t know how to get past the perfectionism. Thanks for stopping by, Amy.

      1. “try to edit 300 blank pages” – LOL! I’m going to have to put that on my inspiration wall.
        Great article, thanks,

  14. I wrote my first three books with no internal editor, because I had no idea what I was doing. Then I learned to edit and finally understood what it meant to have an internal editor. And it’s really hard to ignore the little devil! Fortunately, I’ve bought into the belief that first drafts are crap, and plow on. I do research as I’m going. Fortunately I write fast.

    Great post! I tweeted and shared on FB.

    1. I’m right there with you, Ella. I did not know what I was doing when I wrote Book 1 (which was going to be the ONLY one. LOL.) Good for you for being able to hush that little internal editor up and just keep “plowing” on. Love that description of the process, BTW. It’s true. It’s like plowing along! Thanks for the shares on FB and Twitter. Write On, Ella!

  15. Wonderful post, Heather. I love the idea of writing VISCERAL in place of stopping to feel out the emotion. And you’re right, stopping to think blocks my creative process and I lose touch with my characters. I can go back and think later. Thanks for your input.

    1. You’re right, Kathleen. We have to get emotionally active in the scene and it slows down the process if we stop to get emotional each time. Granted, sometimes those initial feelings are RIGHT THERE. But if they’re not, then do it later! Again, wine helps 🙂 Thanks for stopping by this morning.

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