daffodils closeup“Every first draft is perfect,” wrote Jane Smiley, “because all a first draft has to do is exist.” Her words soothe like balm on a writer’s spirit. This simple truth about the process of writing a book is that every author starts with a first draft. Smiley’s words carry the weight of wisdom since her best-selling A Thousand Acres received the Pulitizer Prize for Fiction in 1992. Her novels, short stories, and books about the craft of writing provide me with inspiration. The first draft is never the final draft, but it is the bedrock for your book.

The pursuit of ‘perfect’ too soon may be your nemesis as an author. During the creative process of writing a first draft, you must suspend editorial judgement. Shut off the internal critic in your head. Squash your temptation to pause and obsess about finding the right word. Don’t think about metaphors, or language mechanics. Silence that harsh interior censor, and write ragged, raw and rough. Focus on your story and subject.

If suddenly the idea of writing the first draft seems impossible, stop thinking about writing and think about what you have to say. What is your point? What is the overarching problem/issue/conflict? What is the story? Quiet the monster who whispers in your ear that you’ll never be a good writer. It’s not about the quality of the writing in the first draft, it’s about the story. Focus less on your writing as craft and more on capturing the essence of your story.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” wrote Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It’s called a rough draft for a reason. “The shitty draft,” is how Anne Lamott describes the product of every writer’s first version. I call it the “vomit draft,” because the words spew out. Gushing like a fire hydrant, it’s not pretty. It’s part of the process. When you’re into the writing flow of new material, it feels involuntary and convulsive. Gulp.

The number of words grows weekly. Page numbers rack up into three digits. Exhilirating. Intoxicating. When you finish the first draft of your manuscript, you will experience an incredible sense of personal accomplishment. Congratulations. Word to the wise: don’t show it to anyone else to read until you have gone back and gone through three or four times cleaning up your own copy. Author and journalist Constance Hale talks about the rigorous 7-step self-editing process she goes through with every piece of her own writing.

It is hard to write. It is hard to receive feedback. It is important to find someone whom you trust, but is an editor and knows how to give helpful feedback. Your family and friends are not your best first readers. Don’t put either of you in a “this is awkward” situation. What they may say will either be what you want to hear and not particularly helpful, or hurtful. Good feedback comes from editors, writing groups, or trusted friends. Good writing is rewriting.

2 thoughts on “Writing the First Draft of Your Book Manuscript

  1. In 2008, I didn’t know I was creating a first draft of anything when I began writing about my husband’s illness and death and life on my own. Instead, I was turning the images, feelings, and stories that spun in my head and heart into short stories so I could digest what had happened and find a path into my new life. It was about survival. After writing 125 essays with my writing teacher Ellen Schmidt, I considered the possibility of a book, although I had never published anything longer than 10 pages. When I first showed you “the book” in 2011, it was a pile of stories arranged in an order that made some sense to me, but didn’t work as a narrative. I was stuck in the project and knew it. My voice, my life, and the book grew stronger through transforming that first draft into a coherent memoir. Thank you, Jill, for helping me develop my voice and my sense of Self.

    • Thanks for your comment Elaine about your writing process. Your memoir grew organically from direct experiences, the writing to heal process, and moving from making meaning for your own self to writing for a reader to make sense of grief. As you know, the first draft is first. It’s just the beginning of the process toward publication. I dare not ask you, Elaine, how many revisions your manuscript has gone through in the past year. Many. That’s the process of finding the heart of the story and taking ownership of your own voice.

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