[Candice] You’re listening to But Is It Write? A podcast where we discuss, debunk, and debate common writing advice.
[Maggie] There’s a lot of writing advice out there, but is it right?
[Maggie] Hey everyone! I’m Maggie Derek and I’m here with my co-host Candice Lee. Candice is a full-time author part-time procrastinator and writer coach who has more coffee running through her veins at this point than blood.
[Candice] And I’m here with my co-host Maggie Derek. Maggie is an award-winning author, bisexual artist, and peddler of high-quality memes.
[Maggie] The finest quality memes in all the land. This week’s writing advice is Your First Draft Will Be Ugly.
[Candice] This is going to be a fun one.
[Maggie] I think so.
[Candice] Because… for many reasons.
[Maggie] I think it’s going to be a fun one because you just called my first draft ugly.
[Candice] I, you know, your first draft was pretty fug. It was pretty… Your first draft of The Star and the Ocean. That first chapter…
[Maggie] How dare you.
[Candice] There was a lot of…
[Maggie] Hey! Okay, I didn’t realize this episode was going to turn into a Roast Maggie. I just came here to have a good time.
[Candice] To be honest, it was like one of those marble sculptures, where like you have to chisel away to see the beauty in the masterpiece underneath.
[Maggie] Aw! That is the nicest thing anyone ever said.
[Candice] I actually have an example. I don’t know why this sentence has stuck with me for so long. I actually remember, it’s when you were writing the chapter with Em and Welkin, and our listeners don’t have any idea what this means but, and Em goes “Yeah, well I didn’t exactly ask for it, did I?” and I changed it to “I didn’t ask for this,” she spat.
[Maggie] Why do you remember that so well?
[Candice] Because it wasn’t a bad sentence. It’s just they are like “Yeah, well I didn’t exactly,” it’s just a lot of filler words. But you can say “I didn’t ask for that,” she spat – it’s much more concise. There’s less filler words and it really gives you the feeling of her anger as opposed to a kind of rambling sentence.
[Maggie] Em is kinda rambly, though.
[Candice] But the thing is your first sentence completely had like the right meaning. I knew exactly what you meant to say in your first sentence. It gave me the exact feeling that I wanted it to give me. It’s just the prose could have been a little tightened and there’s nothing wrong with that.
[Maggie] I’ve completely forgot what we were supposed to be talking about.
[Candice] Your first draft will be ugly.
[Maggie] Oh, that’s right, okay.
[Candice] As I was roasting you on your ugly first draft.
[Maggie] Oh right. I was like “you’re just taking me down this route” and I have no idea why. Okay, sorry. I’m going to regroup here for a second.
[Candice] I didn’t mean to insult you and make you feel bad.
[Maggie] No, I’m an adult, I can…
[Candice] Because here’s the advice. Your first draft will be ugly. So we just want to come out and say “Yeah it might be totally bad, but that’s okay because it’s your first draft.”
[Maggie] Here’s the thing: let your first draft be ugly. Oh man, I can’t even tell you. I think probably one of my biggest pet peeves about the writing community, and I’m just going to come right out and say it, and sorry if I offend anybody, but… are the people who are really precious about their first draft.
[Maggie] I think I’ve said this before in that I feel like this phenomenon is very much a trait of writers who are relatively new to sharing their work with other people or younger. But not necessarily because goodness knows as I’ve seen some writers who should know better behaving poorly about their first drafts. But I feel like it’s something that we hopefully get over the more we write, the more we revise, the more we share. But perhaps not necessarily. All I’m saying is don’t be precious about your first draft because it is going to be ugly and that is okay. In fact, maybe it should be ugly.
[Candice] So the idea that your first draft will be ugly is supposed to help. Because it tells you that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t let your perfectionism get in the way. If it’s not good the first time, that’s fine, you can fix it. Because if you try to write the perfect book on the first go around, you’re not going to finish it because you’re going to hem and haw. You’re going to agonize over every word choice. You’re going to look at a sentence delete it, rewrite it. Look at it, delete it, rewrite it. And I think that’s a problem a lot of writers have. Writers who can’t finish their manuscripts because they want it to be perfect. They can see it in their head what they want and they can’t make that happen on paper. So the book just never gets done. I think we have to give ourselves permission to just write something really bad.
[Maggie] That’s how I was in the beginning. I remember the very first time I tried NaNoWriMo. I couldn’t embrace that idea of “just write and fix it later”. It was… I would agonize over every, like you were saying, every sentence, every paragraph, every page had to be right the first time. And I think there are… I know writers, you are to a certain extent kind of like this, where you try to make sure that your first draft is as clean as possible.
[Candice] I was going to talk about that later.
[Maggie] Yeah, but like a clean draft versus a perfect draft are not the same thing. And I was constantly trying to make my draft perfect and I just, I would never finish anything.
[Candice] But now you have. You’ve finished I think almost 5 manuscripts at this point.
[Maggie] But I had to stop trying to make that first draft perfect. And the thing is I hate revising. I hate it with an all-consuming passion, but—
[Candice] I hate it with the fire of a thousand blazing suns.
[Maggie] That’s correct. You’re the one I learned that from. That phrase.
[Candice] Really? I thought I learned it from you.
[Maggie] No, I remember the first time I ever heard you say it. We were teenagers and we were teasing you about a guy you worked with that I think you had a crush on. And you were like “I hate you with the white-hot intensity of a thousand burning suns.” And I was like “That is amazing.” I can still hear your rage.
[Candice] I know the exact guy you’re talking about. You know what’s weird? I went off to university and my roommate happened to run into him and make him as a friend and they started dating and he started coming over to our house all the time. Yeah, weird small world. Anyway the point of this conversation.
[Maggie] Anyway. Right. I’ve never – as long as I’m trying to make that first draft perfect the first time around, I make no progress knowing that I have to come back and revise. It irks me but I think I’m getting better at it the more the more manuscripts I have under my belt. Like the one I’m working on right now, I can see all these places as I’m actively writing going “Oh this needs to be tightened up, this could be stronger, this may just have to go” but I’m not pausing to do it now. I’m like “That is future Maggie’s problem, right now your job is to get the story written.”
[Candice] I have no empathy for my future self.
[Maggie] I like that.
[Candice] Screw her. Whatever.
[Maggie] Screw future me. That’s her problem. My problem is just write the book. I like that. It’s a little… it’s a little unorthodox, but I like the idea of having no empathy for your future self.
[Candice] But I mean, that’s with everything. I don’t want to do my laundry. That’s future Candice’s problem.
[Maggie] Oh gosh. You know, that was one of the first moments when I started watching She-Ra that I knew I was going to love the show is when Catra said “That’s future Adora and Catra’s problem” and I was like “I love it already, I’m here for it.” ‘Cause I related, you know, and I love content that’s relatable.
[Candice] Very relatable.
[Maggie] Anyway, back to…
[Candice] We get distracted by She-Ra. I mean, if you haven’t seen the new She-ra reboot, you gotta.
[Maggie] Oh my gosh. I literally walked into a comic book shop today that was giving away like promotional stacks of posters from the first launch in 2018. You better believe I grabbed—
[Candice] Did you grab some?
[Maggie] Yes. Do you know me?
[Candice] That’s why I assumed.
[Maggie] Candice, come on, let’s focus.
[Candice] Okay, so after we babbled for a bit about the idea of your first draft being ugly, I want to switch this around.
[Candice] I’m going to give you an anecdote. I know some writers, and I had mentioned this earlier to Maggie, I know some writers who write chapter by chapter and send each chapter off to their editor as they write it, and as soon as they finish the last chapter and get that last chapter back from their editor, they compile it into an e-book and they publish it. And you know what? I’ve read their books. They’re good.
[Maggie] Are they always good, though?
[Candice] Those books are not bad. I have read them. Not every book is good. But again, the books you take a year to write aren’t always good either.
[Maggie] No. I mean, I guess. Because I technically write one chapter at a time and I don’t necessarily publish it right away, but as I’m writing one chapter at a time and publishing it and getting out in the world because I’m writing a web serial. Looking back I think “Okay, there are definitely some things that in a revision, in a rewrite of this down the line, I’m going to do differently that I didn’t have the opportunity to do the first time around” because of that like break neck schedule.
[Candice] Exactly. That’s the thing. If they were to take the time to write another draft or two, I’m sure it would’ve been better, but it wasn’t trash. And for myself as an indie author I don’t have the luxury of rewriting six drafts over a year. So I have to make my first draft as clean as possible. I still send it to editors, I still go through revisions, but I have to plan it, I have to know what my characters are, and I have to know what the plot is, I have to know where the story’s going so I can make the best draft possible. And I’m going to bring up this on Twitter because I saw something on Twitter and somebody had asked for what’s some bad writing advice you had gotten, and somebody responded and they said “I try to make my first draft the best it can possibly be, so I don’t think my first draft has to be ugly, I want my first draft to be amazing.” And as long as that doesn’t trip you up and make you end up not writing, then that’s actually a good thing. If you want to deliberate over every word and make it as perfect as it can be and still finish the manuscript, then yeah, go right ahead.
[Maggie] I think people, maybe you’re getting up on the idea of just the terminology of ugly or you have heard people say “Your first draft is gonna suck, your first draft is going to be crap” and they’re like “Well, no, I don’t want my first draft, I want any draft to be ugly or crap or whatever bad terminology you want to use.” Like I don’t think it’s worth getting hung up over. Basically your first draft is just not going to be good, or is not going to be — actually let’s put it this way: Your first draft is not going to be perfect.
[Candice] See, that’s the thing. Any revision will make the book better, but you don’t need billions of revisions to make your book better. You know what I mean? If you do, it will be better, but it doesn’t have to be terrible if you don’t.
[Maggie] Yeah, you don’t have to necessarily write a steaming pile of garbage just for the sake of getting it done. If you’re me, yeah, your first draft is going to be a steaming pile of garbage. But, hey, if you can make it a little bit cleaner, if you can polish that turd up a little bit and make sure that when you’re said and done it’s not as bad as it could be, but it’s not perfect yet, and that’s great. But I would say that don’t expect whatever you come out of that first round with to be perfect. And that’s where I get irritated. That idea of people who are like “No, my first draft is always going to be perfect.” Can you make that first draft great? Totally. Can you take the first draft and just run with it? Yeah, if you want to, but don’t be afraid. As much as revising to me is the worst, it’s one of those like things you gotta suffer through for the sake of your art I suppose. That’s the suffering you can do for your art is revising.
[Candice] Suffer for your art. Suffer through the revisions.
[Maggie] That’s just it, though. Some people do really enjoy revising.
[Candice] Ew. Monsters.
[Maggie] Those beautiful, brilliant monsters. I wish I could be the type of person who really loves revising, and I don’t know maybe one day I’ll learn to really love and embrace it. But it’s just such an important part of the process and to finish a draft.
[Candice] I’m going to kind of lie and say I like some parts of the revision process, too. When I say “I hate revising” I’m only talking about like a certain part. If I have to make a huge change like taking out an entire character or rewriting an entire plot line… I hated it! Oh my God, it’s such a gigantic task, I cannot deal. But if I’m just going sentence by sentence and doing line editing and tightening up the prose and getting rid of useless filler words, I actually really enjoy that. I like going through my book line by line and just tightening it up.
[Maggie] I like the potential. One thing that, and this is something I’ve learned over the years is, as I’m writing and I’d mentioned earlier that I’m recognizing it actively as I’m working on this manuscript these moments that I’m going to have to take out or revise or tighten up, where that used to bother me, and that used to make me feel like I was failing the story, now I see it as the potential to make it better and it actually I’m excited by it. Because I know that whatever I finish with it might be fine the way it stands but, oh man, is it ever going to be so much better. And I think a really good example is – I’ve got this one unfinished project that is floating in the ether. I wrote the first version of it during NaNoWriMo in 2016. I wrote it and then I quickly cleaned it up, I sent it to a bunch people, I think you I sent it to you and—
[Candice] Which one is this? Is this the nautical one?
[Maggie] Yeah, and you make it through the first chapter, you were like “I hate the protagonist.”
[Candice] I do remember a lot of what you wrote. I was like “This doesn’t really make sense.”
[Maggie] You were unhappy with it. I sent it to another beta reader who was obsessed with it, who loved everything about it, and was like “This might be my favorite thing that you’ve ever written.” And for that reader it would been fine to just push it out the way it was, but I just, I started work on revisions, I got distracted by life, I set it aside for couple of years and then I started to resurrect it last year, and man it was already so much better. And I was rewriting it, I was just—I took the whole thing and just set it aside and started over. I was still not done, but am I ever glad I didn’t just try to run with that first draft, even with the tightening and quick revision that I did before sending it to beta readers, I’m so glad that I took the time. Because I remember being kind of bummed out when you and another beta reader came back and liked the overall story, but had some a few pieces where they’re like “This has to really be, you have to revise your villain, you have to revise this particular part” and you know I was still being precious about it. My feelings were a little hurt, but I was like “You know what? These people want me to produce a good story, so I’m going to take my ego and put it on the shelf and make the story better.” And for me that meant putting it aside for a while until I became a stronger writer but I’m glad because as much as I felt good about that, and I did, I felt really good about that first draft, because I thought… I don’t know I thought it was pretty good. Now I look at it and I’m like “Oh my god, what was I thinking?” but it’s okay.
[Candice] That’s the thing, I mean, when we say your first draft will be ugly it doesn’t mean it has to be terrible. It just means that there’s always going to be room for improvement. And if you think “My first draft is perfect, there’s nothing I can do to make this better,” then you’re going to lose out on the opportunity to just improve your writing and just level up. You know what I mean?
[Maggie] Oh, for sure. And if you’re sitting there thinking “there’s no way this story could be better” I’m going to tell you something, and I don’t like to necessarily speak in definitive statements, but you are wrong. You are wrong.
[Candice] Even Stephen King has said he goes back to his books and he like thinks about “I would have changed that sentence, I would change this here” like even you know professional famous rich writers look at their previous work and think “I could’ve done this differently, I could’ve done this better.” Because you grow as a writer the more you write and the longer you write, the better you get. And there’s always going to be a time when you look back and you think “I could have done this better” and if you have a first draft and you consider it perfect the first time you’re losing that opportunity to make it better.
[Maggie] You bring up Stephen King and this is a piece of advice that perhaps we could delve into more in depth later, but in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he talks about how I think he leaves two weeks, I can’t remember… When he finishes a manuscript he talks about taking it and putting it in a drawer for X amount of time before he even starts revising. He walks away from it completely. He doesn’t just jump right into it. And I know for someone like you that’s not necessarily an option.
[Candice] Well, what I usually do is finish it and then put it away and start working on the next book and spend like… I outline the book, I get a look at who the characters are, and then once I’ve kind of forgotten about the first book, then I go back to it. But I’m never just not writing.
[Maggie] Yeah, so you still like put that distance between yourself and the first draft. And that’s one piece of advice, like I said we could probably come back to this really hash it out over it, but that’s one thing I really, really cling to is that idea of give yourself some space between the first draft and your revision. Because you’re so close to the material you can’t see the forest through the trees.
[Maggie] The trees through the forest?
[Candice] Oh, I don’t know, what is the saying?
[Maggie] I think it’s the forest through the trees and I’m just going to keep talking.
[Candice] Go ahead.
[Maggie] Anyway. You get to so close to the material to see the forest through the trees, or the trees through the forest, either way. You need that space, you need that distance to be able to see it from, like through a fresh set of eyes, because when you are that close to the material it becomes really, really hard to see the parts that need to be tightened up or the parts where there are loopholes or it just doesn’t make sense. Because you just wrote it, you knew what you were thinking in the moment, so you just gloss over these really glaring errors. Where if you give yourself the space and you, especially like what you were just talking about you start something new or maybe you just take a brain break and you consume a bunch of really cool content that gets you inspired… and then you come back to it? You’re going to be able to see those really – either the glaring missteps or the more subtle things that you probably would not have noticed if you had just jumped right into revising or if you had just ignored the second, third, fourth draft altogether.
[Candice] Yeah, I agree.
[Maggie] Sorry, I had to mute and yawn. Oh man, this is going to need so much cleanup. Holy crap.
[Candice] Or we could just leave everything in because we’re awesome.
[Maggie] We could. We’ll see how it goes. But yeah, I just, I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time trying to, because I used to be that type of writer, I used to be the writer who believed that my first draft was, not going to be necessarily perfect, because I think there’s a difference—well I don’t think, there is a difference between your general line edits and trying to clean something up versus those bigger structural revisions.
[Candice] Those I hate.
[Maggie] And those are the ones that people are I think really afraid of. Because cleaning up a manuscript whatever I think everyone kind of appreciates that that has to be done, unless you know, you just type and you hit send which get plenty of us are guilty of, but… Actually, I’m going to deviate for second. Apparently, and I shouldn’t be surprised by this and yet I am, a lot of agents experience like this December rush. A huge flood—
[Candice] Because of NaNoWriMo?
[Maggie] Because of NaNoWrimo. People will finish their NaNo manuscripts and then send them to an agent right away.
[Candice] Oh my God, why? The whole point is to write a bad first draft for NaNo.
[Maggie] Right? See, and this where NaNo, I think people love it or hate it. I am a lover. NaNoWriMo taught me to embrace the bad first draft.
[Maggie] That’s when things really changed for me, because the first time I tried NaNo was, like I was saying earlier, where I was really laboring over every single sentence, every single the word that I wrote, and it wasn’t, and I didn’t finish anything, and it wasn’t until I finally embraced the idea of “don’t look back, just write the words and go back and finish it later” that I actually accomplished something. It was the first time I won NaNoWriMo. But like I said that manuscript was a disaster, but at least had something to work with. And now I try to imagine like “My God, what if I had actually tried to send that?” It wouldn’t have gotten picked up, I would’ve been disappointed.
[Candice] That’s why I love NaNo so much. I mean one of their talking points is literally about turning off your inner editor and just letting the words come. Because you can fix something, you can’t fix nothing.
[Maggie] Yeah, exactly. It’s words on the page. Who cares if they’re terrible? You can’t edit a blank page.
[Maggie] You gotta have something to work with.
[Candice] I think that’s pretty much what the advice means. Your first draft will be ugly means the first draft will not be perfect and it will be better if you go through edits and revisions. And if you think that “my first draft is perfect” then you’re losing out on the opportunity to make it better.
[Maggie] And you’re wrong. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sure there are people is listening like while scurrying “you don’t know me!” And you know you’re right, I don’t know you, I’d like to get to know you, but I don’t know you, but I do know that your first draft is not perfect. And I do know that it will be so much stronger if you take that time and just don’t be precious about it.
[Candice] That’s the thing. It’s totally possible to write a first draft that isn’t terrible, it’s totally possible to write a first draft that’s pretty good. But it will always be better, always, always be better, if you take the time to edit and revise.
[Candice] There is no way for you to edit a book into being crappier.
[Candice] It’s very hard to take something and make it worse after the fact. You can really only go up from here.
[Maggie] Like I think it happens. In fact I heard from people who have over-edited and didn’t know when enough is enough.
[Candice] I think maybe after the tenth draft or something, you just gotta give it up.
[Maggie] Eventually you have to accept the fact that the book is done. But I love that idea of like, yeah, okay, maybe your first draft is going to be the worst thing you’ve ever written, but it will always stand to gain from going back and giving it more love after the fact.
[Candice] I also think this piece of advice is really good for the perfectionists among us. Because if you try to make the perfect draft, it won’t happen for you because every word has to be perfect. If you embrace the fact that your first draft will be ugly, you can get rid of that perfectionism and just write and get it done.
[Maggie] Yeah. Just be okay with it and like recognize that it’s okay if it’s not perfect. Don’t beat yourself up over it. I feel that’s the one thing that’s our theme that consistently comes up a lot in every episode, was like if it makes you feel bad, that it’s not good. And it’s the same thing here. Like if you hate your draft because you’re trying so hard to make it perfect, that’s not good, that’s terrible, you shouldn’t hate your draft over that. That’s future you’s problem. Just write the thing. That’s future you’s problem.
[Candice] Just write the thing, that’s future you’s problem. I think that should be my motto.
[Maggie] It’s already our motto, Candice. But you know it works.
[Candice] It does.
[Maggie] So, your first draft will be ugly: But is it right?
[Candice] I think it’s right in so much that the word ugly might be misconstrued. We don’t mean your first draft is going to be a terrible, awful, hot mess all the time. It just means that if you let go of the perfectionism and write something—anything—you can always make it better.
[Maggie] Yeah, I think maybe your first draft isn’t going to be ugly, but your first draft isn’t going to be perfect, and so in that respect it is right. Right?
[Candice] I would agree.
[Maggie] Thanks. All right. Well, I think that’s another one in the bag. A few tangents, but we got ‘er done. See? Our first… You know what? These podcasts are a perfect example because, my goodness, they are not perfect the first time around.
[Candice] There’s a lot of editing.
[Maggie] So much revising that happens on these podcasts. If only you knew, dear listener. Anyway.
[Candice] I think we should just keep these podcasts as is and do no revisions because I think the ugliness is part of the fun.
[Maggie] I will keep more of the ugliness this time around but there are definitely some moments that are gonna have to go. Anyway. Thank you so much for listening, as always. Don’t forget that you can recommend advice for us to cover in a future episode by tweeting it to us on Twitter @butisitwrite or you can send it to us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you like what were doing, please remember to give us a five-star rating and tell your friends to check us out. Spread the word and help us reach other writers who might need our particular brand of telling you what to do-ism. Telling you how to live your writerly life. Until next week, thanks for listening!