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Write A Perfect First Draft Every Time

A first draft is always perfect. That’s my view, though Hemingway didn’t agree. He once wrote, “The first draft of anything is shit.” But that’s a harsh judgment of something that exists only as a sketch. The purpose of your first attempt is to put your ideas on the page, however you can. I recommend not showing your work to anyone at this stage. If you keep your early work private, you’ll have nothing to prove to anyone and can write whatever you want as you give your imagination free rein.

Do write from a loose premise. If you’re working on a novel, you'll want to write active scenes with strong scene goals. So before you begin writing, ask yourself one question: Who wants what in this scene? The answer to that question provides the only direction you’ll need to start. And if your answer is: A poor tailor wants work, as in the first paragraph of Rohinton Mistry’s bestselling novel A Fine Balance, your imagination will get to work on that scene goal. You may imagine where your tailor will apply for work, how he will get there, if he is alone or with someone, how he talks, how you will introduce him, what he looks like, what character traits best define him, how you will show those traits through his actions, and what will happen at the end of the scene to complicate his progress toward his goal.

Don’t fret about any of this, or get “blocked” by anxiety because you think you have to get every word right the first time. Remember that whatever you write here, it will be perfect. Paste that sentence on the top of your computer screen if you have to: Whatever I write will be perfect! And then write whatever comes to mind. If it helps to write the scene goal at the top of the page, do that. If it helps to write questions you will answer at intervals on the page, do that. If you’d rather approach a blank screen, go ahead, but keep your scene goal in mind. Make writing as easy for yourself as possible. If you have an idea, write it down and explore it. This is your idea bank, a sketch to fill in and develop later, and it is written on a computer screen, not in stone, so it is easy to change and easy to discard. Nothing you write is or should be sacred.

You might also limit the time you spend writing. Write in ten minute blocks, and then get up for a glass of water. When you come back, pick up where you left off. Set a timer and stop mid-sentence if you have to. Your imagination will gnaw on the rest of the sentence even as you walk away, and you won’t wonder how to begin again when you return. You will finish the sentence you started. Or you can delete that sentence and start with a fresh one. You're not trying to write a masterpiece at this stage, and certainly not the final product. Author Alice McDermott calls this first draft "spillage." Whatever we call it, writing is all about process, about rewriting, and about layering—going over and over and over a piece to make it better and better and better.

I approach writing according to the Japanese notion of kaizen—to incrementally make something better through small changes. Each time you make the weakest aspect of your work stronger, you greatly increase the overall quality, so this philosophy works well for writers. Shunryu Suzuki-roshi wrote: You are perfect as you are, and you could use a little work. So it is with your first attempt, and your second, and your third. Allow yourself to write some of your worst sentences early one, and in most cases, you’ll also write some of your best.

When you finish, save this early draft, so that if later editing removes some of the spontaneity and freshness in your writing, you will have this first impulsive attempt on file to analyze. Let your work rest for a few days or a week, as long as you can bear. Work on something else, so that when you return to what you've written, you can read it with unbiased eyes. With luck, you’ll no longer be in love with it, but may better see where you will build on what you wrote. Then write your second draft. And guess what? Your second draft will be perfect, too, its sole purpose to be a second draft, not testament to your diamond-bright intellect.

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