I’ve seen that quote attributed to everyone from Phyllis A. Whitney to Stephen King to Michael Crichton. I’m going to guess that it’s from Phyllis A. Whitney, since she lived to be 104 and would have therefore had time to come up with all sorts of nifty quotes. (And that is the correct guess, although until five minutes ago, I had no idea who Phyllis A. Whitney was.)
Anyhow, that quote often pops up when writers discuss their editing and revision process. The idea is that your first draft is horrible and you need to write and rewrite over and over again until it’s perfect. I even wrote a post a while back telling you your first draft sucks. Of course, that post was slightly tongue in cheek and the real purpose to was discuss some of my revision practices.
In this post, however, I’d like to tell you that your first draft probably doesn’t suck. At least not that hard. What makes a story good is a combination of plot, characters, suspense, and emotion. There is no reason that can’t come out on the first try and there’s no reason that rewriting a story over and over will make it any better. The case could even be made that constantly rewriting a story could do more harm than good.
Now I understand that nothing is perfect on the first draft, but MOST–and yes, I’m putting that in all caps, so deal with it–MOST stories do not need massive revisions. They need massive editing. They need a couple of scenes tightened up, switched around, or even taken out. They may even need the beginning or ending changed.
But if you’re happy with the basic premise of the story, that’s great. Clean up the grammar, make sure the plot is solid and the character’s actions are consistent and call it good. Don’t waste time rewriting something that might not need to be rewritten.
There have been plenty of times where I found myself just hating something I was working on, but then went back and read the first draft and rediscovered what it was I actually liked about the story.
So if you’re going to take away anything from my ranting here, just remember that your first draft doesn’t have to be the worst thing you’ll ever write. Likewise, your fifteenth revision isn’t guaranteed to be the best. Find out what’s good and keep it.
Rewrite only what you need to, and just clean up everything else.