Because otherwise, you’ll most likely be crippled by the writer’s arch nemesis: perfectionism.
Did you just cringe? We all experience it when we sit down to write, arrange everything just so, type a sentence or two (or a bit more if you’re lucky), and then it strikes—your inner editor. It smacks you across the face and demands that you fix that grammar mistake right now.
Or worse, you’ve written multiple chapters of your epic novel when you suddenly get a great idea for a new direction to take the story that will make it so much better! But you can’t just keep writing as if you’d written in that awesome new idea from the beginning. No, your inner editor screams at you to immediately go back to the beginning and rewrite the entire thing before you can possibly move forward. What a punk. That inner editor needs a roundhouse kick in the balls.
How do you fight this monster? How can you possibly overcome such a powerful force telling you what you’ve just written isn’t good enough? There may not be one fail-safe solution, but here’s a list of perfectionism-busting tricks I’ve picked up after countless failures, trials and errors, and eventually a few success.
Grab your favorite pen and notebook and just start scribbling. Don’t like to write by hand? Have horrible handwriting? Suck it up and try it anyhow. Putting ink on paper, even if it’s literally scrawling “this is going to suck” over and over, will kick your brain into writing mode faster than anything else. WAY faster than staring at a blank screen with your fingers on your keyboard and the entire internet just a click away.
If you’ve already written this idea off as stupid, hear me out. Writing an analogue first draft is awesome because:
- It’s just you and your words.
- You can’t edit anything, not even to fix spelling mistakes. Take that, inner editor!
- You can’t delete anything (you know, other than by scribbling over it).
- Colorful squiggles don’t appear beneath your words every time you make a stupid mistake.
- You can’t open your browser and scroll through tumblr, peruse Wikipedia, check email, etc.
- There are no settings to adjust and no formatting to deal with.
- You don’t have to worry about battery life or losing your file if you don’t save it every ten seconds. Or a post-apocalyptic event destroying the cloud—the horror!
- You can drink coffee without a lid. Spill some on your page? No worries, it just adds character.
- The flow of ink across paper provides a tangible, tactile sensation that connects you with your words and makes you feel like you’re building something with your hands, not just your mind.
Are you sold yet? Sure, technology has evolved beyond the pen and paper, but these new tools sell us on the idea that they will aid us in creating beautiful, polished works of art. That comes at the high cost of instilling us with chronically high expectations of our work, which is a terrible detriment to creating first drafts. Pen and paper eliminates the need to get it perfect on your first try. As soon as you put ink on a page, it's messy. No need to keep things perfect, just to keep the ink (and ideas) flowing. Try it for yourself and see what happens.
Create a Distraction-Free Writing Environment
Whether you’re writing on a computer or not, there are a lot of distractions in life. Writing requires your undivided attention and concentration, so eliminating distractions is crucial to success. Here are some suggestions to consider:
- Disable the internet on your computer and all your devices or unplug it at the source if you can do so without angering the people who live with you. Physically go somewhere without the internet if you have to. Use getting back online as a reward for reaching your writing goal.
- If you must write digitally, use a distraction-free text editor with as few features as possible. It should be just you and the words. Forget about formatting while you first draft, turn off spell-check, don’t use backspace, etc. There are a TON of distraction-free writing programs out there claiming to help you with this. It doesn’t matter which one you use—just pick one and stick with it. And use fullscreen mode!
- Complete any time-sensitive tasks before you start writing. Pay that overdue bill, submit your class assignment that’s due at midnight, let the dog out, etc. If it’s truly urgent and important, do it now so it won’t be distracting you as you write and so you can’t use it as an excuse to stop writing. But if it’s not that important, leave it for later.
- Don’t let all the little things you need to do become grounds for procrastination. Get your priorities straight, and make writing a priority.
- Try writing without music or background noise. It might seem weird at first if you’re not used to it, but it’s one less thing to think about and tinker with as you write, and it may help you clear your head and better focus on the story.
- Find a place to write where no one will interrupt you. It doesn't have to be quiet or lonely, but you won't get much writing in if there are people distracting you. Alternatively, consider writing with a friend or someone who will scold you if you procrastinate or stop writing to do something stupid.
Always Think About What to Write Next
No matter if you’re just starting your story or you’re approaching the final scenes, it’s important to have at least some idea of where your story’s going or what you’re going to write next. It’s hard to write the next scene if you haven’t at least thought about it before hand. So think about your story in the shower, while you work out, on your way to work, while you eat, while on hold or in line, or whenever possible before you start your writing session. Consider turning off whatever media you typically expose yourself to at these times so you can actually think freely.
However you choose to do it, work stuff out in your head and make some notes if you can. This will help you get excited and prepared to sit down and start writing.
Make a Mess
Don’t worry about creating a neat, perfectly formatted document. Don’t even worry about keeping your draft all in one notebook or one file on your computer. Life is hectic for most people, and trying to write a beautiful and organized first draft is counter-productive. Embrace the chaos and write anytime, anywhere you get a chance by whatever means you have available.
Don’t let not having access to your notebook, computer, favorite pen, cloud account, etc. become an excuse not to write. There are plenty of chances to write throughout the day if you don’t sabotage yourself from taking them. You can organize it all later, but you can’t organize what you haven’t written.
Write Your Notes and Your Story Together
Don’t separate your notes and outline from your story text. You’re writing a first draft, remember? That means you’re basically dumping the contents of your brain into the open. The simplest way to deal with all that information is to keep it together.
Write in the margins, attach notes you scribbled on scraps of paper, interrupt a scene to work out a character’s motivation in the same document, and so forth. This will prevent you from trying too hard to organize and structure your thoughts, which puts your perfectionism back in control.
Throw the thought of getting things “just right” out the window so you can be free to write whatever the hell you want. That’s the whole idea. Let your brain do its thing. Let it process the story as you write. Let it all come out however it wants.
Don’t Look Back
Think the last scene or sentence you wrote sucked? Think you should go back and rewrite the opening paragraph? Think you need to fix that one glaring continuity error you made a few chapters ago? Too bad. Imagine your words are etched in stone, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Don’t look back, don’t reread any of the story, and for the love of cheese in an aerosol can, don’t try to change anything until you’ve finished the first draft!
Just keep charging forward. If you think you might forget about something you know you’ll need to change later, write a note in the margins or in line with the rest of your story text and move on. Don’t come back to these notes until you’re done with the first draft.
Don’t Worry About Consistency
The story you have in your head or in your outline will change as you write it. That’s a good thing! Emergent discoveries about your story as you write are some of the best parts of the process. Adopt them immediately and keep writing as if you’d written the story that way from the beginning. Whatever changes you need to make to what you’ve already written in order to fully incorporate this new idea can wait.
If you think of something cool and want to change the direction of your story halfway through, roll with it! If you think of a great scene for the end of your story and want to write it out of order, go for it! You can fix continuity issues later.
While you write your first draft, don’t worry about using proper grammar, punctuation, formatting, accuracy, spelling, the perfect description, finding the perfect metaphor, picking good names, etc. That just slows you down. If you can’t think of the right word or need to fact check something later, leave a blank spot or use some special character you can easily find and change later.
Don’t stop writing to research. It’s okay to be wrong for now. No one will ever know you didn’t research that one important detail until your second draft. If it’s holding you up, slap in a placeholder and move on.
Write as Fast as You Can
Don’t overthink a first draft. Brain vomit it out as quickly as you can, however you can. The goal is not to write something beautiful, it's to write something. Getting the story out of your head is the first and most important step. You can’t find gold without digging. Mine the story out of your brain so you can refine it later. The faster you do this, the less time you have to spend fighting off your inner editor.
Don’t Show Your Unfinished First Draft to Anyone
The first draft of your story is a secret diary between your eyes and your brain. It’s allowed to suck—it’s supposed to suck—and no one else needs to know about it. Initial creativity belongs to the voice inside your head alone. It’s loud enough without having to consider the voices and opinions of anyone else. There’s a time and place to get feedback, but while writing a first draft is definitely not one of those times.
Write Every Day
First drafts don’t write themselves. You can know all these tricks, but they won’t do you any good if you don’t put in the time and effort to actually write.
Set a realistic daily goal for yourself to write for a certain amount of time or meet a specific word count every day. Make sure this goal is reasonable! You should feel good about yourself when you exceed your goal, and the goal shouldn’t be so ambitious or daunting that it becomes too intimidating to even try.
For example, my current goal is to write at least one sentence of fiction a day, but that first sentence usually turns into several pages. Remember that your situation in life will often change, and amend your goal if you find yourself failing or overexceeding it on a regular basis.
Be consistent and hold yourself accountable, and consider finding a writing buddy or accountability partner to check in with on a regular basis. Use a word count tracker or a “don’t break the chain” calendar to keep track of your progress and help you visualize your successes and failures. It might take a while to form the habit, but writing on a consistent basis is the only real way to make progress and finish things.
Don’t Stop Writing Until You Reach the End
Stories are finite, and so are first drafts. Don’t stop writing until you’ve reached the end of your story. Finishing a first draft is a glorious thing, but that doesn’t mean your work is done. It just means you can let loose your inner editor without fear of losing your forward momentum. Now you can move on to the next steps of the writing process.
Cut Yourself Some Slack
Don’t hold yourself to any quality standards while you write a first draft. This means don't worry about achieving any kind of perfect writing style or getting your words just right on the first pass. Instead, focus on capturing the essence of your story on paper. You can polish it later; that's why editing and rewriting exist. But you can't first draft and rewrite at the same time.
In your first draft, allow yourself to experiment and explore different possibilities. Go in any direction you want, try killing that one character and see what happens, or let your character do something stupid just for kicks and giggles. You don’t know what might work until you try, and you won’t know what will fail miserably until after the fact. Remember that most great things in life are discovered through trial and error or completely by accident, so don't be afraid to try anything! Do yourself a favor and reserve all judgement until after the first draft is complete.
Find a writing process that works for you and use it, but don’t hold yourself to it. It will change as you grow and improve. Allow yourself to be creative, make mistakes, try new things, learn, and stumble upon the creative genius inside you. You will uncover nuggets of gold, but most what you write in a first draft will be crap. Accept that fact and write it anyway. Don’t stop telling yourself to just keep writing, that first drafts exist to suck, and that you must finish the first draft before you can craft the story into something fully brilliant.
First drafts are a starting point. Finishing the first draft doesn’t mean you’ve finished the story. It means you’ve created a foundation upon which to finish the story. Remember that your first draft doesn’t have to look anything like what you want the finished story to look like. You can’t paint walls before you build a foundation. Work from the ground up, and think of your first draft as the construction site of your story. Of course it’s going to be a mess until it’s finished and you clean everything up! Embrace this and develop a realistic expectation for what writing your first draft will really look like.
Then just write.