One of the greatest struggles I see aspiring authors encounter is with finishing a first draft. Finishing is an important part of the craft of writing, but maybe it doesn’t get enough attention. Let’s take a closer look.
Although I will offer advice and observations, there is no big secret. The key to finishing pieces is to finish more pieces. That might sound like an obvious tautology, but it runs deeper than that. Like everything else about writing, completing a work takes practice. If you aren’t seeing your pieces through to the end, then you aren’t getting enough practice to strengthen this particular muscle.
It’s a bit like going to the gym. Imagine your workout involves doing three sets of an exercise, with some number of repetitions per set. What would happen if every time you decided to work out, you got dressed in your workout clothes, went to the gym, and did a couple of repetitions—then stopped? Maybe completing the workout seemed too challenging or boring, or maybe something else distracted you. Either way, you would get a lot of practice at getting dressed, but not the practice of completing a full workout. You’d be great at getting started, but you would not build any staying power.
Writing is like that. It’s important to keep going beyond the initial excitement of getting started so you can practice completion.
My writing-intensive courses in public policy were a huge help in this area. Every week, my classes required me to do a ton of reading then crank out several thousands of words before the week was up. I put a lot of time and energy into those papers, but I did not have the luxury of pondering them for months or years, agonizing over every word, or getting halfway done then deciding to do something entirely different. Even when I felt what I sent to my professor wasn’t my best work, I got a lot of practice going from start to finish in a very short time. Dawdling was not an option.
That being said, when a paper was on something that mattered to me personally, I reviewed my professor’s comments and criticisms and did a final round of revisions for my own benefit. Integrating feedback and critique was an important part of improving.
Finishing a draft even when it is challenging and you aren’t entirely happy with the result is still an important step because it gives you raw material to revise. It is always easier to start with something rather than start from scratch with nothing. When you have nothing, it’s easy to get bogged down in considering all the possibilities, spinning your wheels and not producing anything. But when you have something on the page, you can look at it and say, “Okay, I like this part, but this other part doesn’t work. Now I can see why, so let me work on fixing that problem.” You’ve narrowed down the infinite possibilities to a manageable revision checklist.
A friend who produces articles related to his artistic endeavors takes an interesting approach. He hires a copywriter to produce a first draft, then he completely re-writes it. He says it saves him a lot of time and effort in the early conceptual phases, and even when he is unhappy with what the copywriter produced, it’s a lot easier for him to start from a draft and be critical of it. If he sees something that isn’t said the way he would say it, that makes it easier for him to decide what he does want to say.
As a freelance editor, I often work on the flip side of that process. People might come to me with an essay or story they’ve drafted, but it has conceptual, grammatical, or structural problems and doesn’t feel professionally written. It’s up to me to “get” what they are trying to communicate, then rewrite the piece with clarity and concision. If I were assigned to draft a piece on the same subject from scratch, it would take a lot longer than the relatively short time it takes me to pull apart an existing draft and fix it.
I treat my own stories and essays the same way: Pound out a first draft, even if it’s a mess, then step back and look at it critically. If, for example, I feel daunted by the infinite possibilities of a scene in fiction, I just pick one and start banging away at the keyboard. Sometimes I get lucky and come up with something I love that simply needs tuned up and polished. Other times, I get something I don’t like at all or doesn’t quite fit, but I can articulate what about it doesn’t work. The process helps me conceptualize what would work so I can take a second crack at it.
In My Life As an Armadillo, I discussed the benefits of drafting an ending long before a story is anywhere near finished. I will just briefly reiterate here that knowing where you are headed with a story helps reduce the time you waste feeling stuck in the middle of it. When people are having trouble completing a draft, it’s often because they lack a sense of where the finish line is. It’s like trying to run a race without knowing what direction to run. You might end up running into the middle of the field, or into the stands, or into the toilets. That’s how it feels to be lost in the middle of a writing project. Do yourself a favor: Get clear on where the finish line is.
Finishing a draft, whether you love it or hate it, also positions you to get more practice in all the stages that come after: getting feedback, doing rewrites, making revisions, editing, and proofreading. You don’t get to practice those important skills if you don’t finish many drafts, and lacking practice in those areas will stunt your growth.
I have a ton of writings other people will never see, because either I feel they aren’t very good, or they ended up being something I didn’t feel was appropriate to share with the world. But finishing them gave me practice for producing the good stuff. Sometimes, people are trapped by the idea that everything they write needs to be brilliant, and they feel that if they write something unappealing, then they have failed.
That attitude is counter-productive. For comparison, consider what counts as an awesome batting average in baseball. Ty Cobb had a lifetime batting average of .366. That means he connected with the ball about a third of the time. It also means he failed to hit the ball two-thirds of the time! Do we look at that hit rate as a failure? Not at all. It’s a damn fine batting average—the highest in major-league history!
So if you write three things and two of them suck but one is a solid hit—not necessarily a home run, but something that gets you to first base—I’d say you’re doing well. Failure isn’t missing a lot of swings. Failure is not taking a swing at all.
Finally, consider that as your skills improve, nothing is stopping you from revisiting an earlier piece and improving or expanding it. I often return to something I wrote years ago and examine it in light of everything I’ve learned since I finished it. Maybe I now have a better grasp of what a failed poem was trying to say, so I rewrite it. Maybe I edit an old article to improve the quality of the prose. Some writers will even take an old novella and expand it into a novel, such as Orson Scott Card did with Ender’s Game, eight years after the short version was first published.
So, take a swing at completing a first draft. If you’re working in a longer form such as a novel, break it into smaller chunks: finish drafting a scene, then another, then a whole chapter, then the next. Keep going! The more you finish, the more practice you get with the entire process and seeing things through to completion. Over time, that practice will make you a stronger writer.