What Is It Like to Read a First Draft?


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What Do You Do with a First Draft?

Experts in the writing field say to give your manuscript’s first draft a breather before you dive back in to edit. The idea behind diverting your attention is that if you’ve had time away, when you come back to evaluate your work, you’ll be able to read it with fresh eyes. Taking a step back is beneficial.

The Treat of the Reread

When I type “the end” and set my book aside for a while I get that secret inner thrill of knowing I have something waiting for me. I really want to read it but I’m making myself wait. It’s like when I was a kid. After I’d gone trick-or-treating I’d stash my favorite candy bar away somewhere—saving what I wanted most for last. In the same way, knowing I have a manuscript to read is like knowing I have a treat waiting for me. The anticipation of a thing can be nearly as enjoyable as the prize itself. And let’s admit it, reading your own work is fun, if only because we are all a little bit self-centered.

Besides the excitement that comes with an unread manuscript, there’s also some fear. I haven’t written enough books to be immune to self-doubt. But a small dose is good for keeping the ego in check.

Revisiting the First Draft

So you’ve let your work sit for a month…or six weeks…or more. And then you return, eager and a little anxious to see what it’s really like. Because of course, you couldn’t judge what it was really like when you were writing it—you were too close to it then. But now you dust off the manuscript, ready to fully experience what you’ve written.

I just recently read one of my drafts for the first time. It was my novel from last November during National Novel Writing Month. I wrote it in twenty-six days.  Then I set it aside for seven months. That’s probably longer than most writers do, but life and other stories dictated my leave of absence from Gateway to Reality. (Sound familiar? I’ve mentioned it before. It’ll be available shortly so keep your eyes open.)

What Can You Expect from a First Draft?

I took Stephen King’s advice and did my first read-through as quickly as possible, just trying to absorb as much as I could. (Rereading your first book ever is completely different than reading a first draft of a later manuscript. The former is food for another post, but in this situation I was actually reading the first draft of my fourth novel.)

Here’s what I found. And what you can expect from a first draft.

  • The writing is often pretty terrible. That’s to be expected, especially considering how quickly I cranked out that draft. But a badly written first draft isn’t something to be feared. A first draft IS a first draft and that’s what counts. I’ve heard writers say it’s actually better to start with a rough first draft than a finely crafted one. It’s a lot easier to cut passages that are crappy than it is to cut those that you’ve spent time doctoring.
  • It’s better than you thought. I can only speak for myself, but when I read through Gateway to Reality, I was pleasantly surprised at how little it sucked. Don’t get me wrong, the bad spots were definitely there. But plot wise, it wasn’t half bad. My fears that I might have written under some delusion that this was a brilliant idea when it was actually a heaping pile of crap were totally unfounded. The story worked and it was good.
  • The problems you faced when writing it are still there. When I set my first draft aside, I knew it had some issues, specifically in one area. I had a futile hope that those problems would disappear once I stepped away and came back. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. The lack of focus and character motivation were still there in that one spot. I had to suck it up and face the facts. Yes, there was a problem, but it was solvable. I just had to work on it.
  • There are some magically good moments. Reading a first draft is a little like driving on a bumpy road. It’s a pretty uneven experience. Sometimes you’ll get a smooth patch followed by a huge pot hole (read: plot hole).  Your tires may be spitting pieces of chipped asphalt behind you the whole way. But there are some wonderful stretches, too. On this book one passage in particular stood out to me. It was one of the places where the red pen halted mid-air and I read the words penned by my own hand, wide-eyed with awe. Discovering one of those moments is magical. So rarely are we able to see our own talent that when a little glimpse shines through, it’s absolutely invigorating.

Have you finished a manuscript? What were your experiences when reading the first draft?

You might also be interested in:

Skydiving Your Way through Publishing

Why and How You Should Support Other Writers

Get the Crap Out

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  1. #1 by Amanda Fanger on September 6, 2012 - 5:20 pm

    Thanks for this post Becca! I’m just about to finish the first draft for a manuscript that I’m (for now) calling Silent Destruction. Sometimes you can get wrapped up too much in thinking about that first read-through that it hinders you as you write. But I’m trying to look past that and concentrate on just getting that first draft done!

    I’ve only ever finished one other draft before, and that first read-through was pretty horrible. There were major plot problems, etc. that I had no idea how to fix. I was a pretty young writer, so I put it aside and kept writing on miscellaneous projects and never made it back to that first draft. Now, that re-write is going to be my NaNoWriMo project this year and I’m pretty excited because the idea – will all the fixes to the plot – has been sitting in the back of my head now for a while and I’m looking forward to revisiting the story.

    • #2 by Becca Campbell on September 6, 2012 - 8:51 pm

      That’s cool, Amanda. Good luck with your rewrite. I think we’re all pretty clueless with that first book, but I’m glad you’re giving it another go. NaNoWriMo promises to be an adventure…as always. :)

  2. #3 by Sydney on September 6, 2012 - 7:07 pm

    Hey Becca. This is where I am at with my Junowrimo Novel. I did a read through and it’s not horrible. It needs a lot of work but I was just happy with the fact that its not horrible. Great post.

    • #4 by Becca Campbell on September 6, 2012 - 8:54 pm

      Sydney, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you had a good June and that the issues are manageable. It’s always a relief to find out a first draft isn’t as bad as you’d feared. I know I often give myself a hard time when I’m in the writing part of it. It’s nice to take a step back and see it for what it really is.

  3. #5 by Emily Wenstrom on September 7, 2012 - 3:01 pm

    I finished my first draft of my first full manuscript a few months ago, and now I’m plowing through the revisions. This is very true to my experience — of it is just absolutely awful, but other parts are actually pretty darn awesome. Most importantly, it freed up my brain to take in a whole new level of ideas and layers to weave in, which has been a lot of fun.

    • #6 by Becca Campbell on September 7, 2012 - 4:01 pm

      Emily, that’s great. What you’re describing reminds me of something Stephen King says in “On Writing.” He basically says that the first draft is for getting things down and isn’t the time to worry about themes but the second draft is the ideal time for weaving in deeper underlying ideas that you see pop out during the first read-through.

      Thanks for stopping by! :)

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