A Perfectionist’s Guide to Crappy First Drafts

A Perfectionist's Guide to Crappy First Drafts | Jeni ChappelleHi NaNo-ers and non-NaNo-ers. I was all set to write a post this week about how it’s okay to write a crappy first draft because you can always revise it…yada yada yada. I started writing it several times before I realized the problem: even I don’t believe that.

See, this advice about writing crappy first drafts came about because it keeps many writers’ perfectionism at bay. And that’s really important when you hold yourself to high standards.

And there is something to be said for letting go of those standards while you’re writing your first draft. Part of it is just recognizing that any first draft isn’t going to be perfect. Or maybe that a perfect first draft is still imperfect. That’s what editing and revising is for. All that is true.

But what if you’re so much of a perfectionist (or even a quibbling, sometimes-pedantic fussbudget—as I once described myself!) that you can’t get past the idea of writing something beneath your standards? Boy, can I relate! I can’t just write without thinking about the finished product. It’s really hard to turn off my internal editor when I spend all day editing, um…externally.

Does that mean you’re just doomed to a crappy first draft?

It doesn’t have to.

Escape Crappy First Draft Purgatory

Writing a better first draft is a balancing act—on the one side you have the desire for the perfect first draft and on the other, the desire to actually finish your book. You want to keep moving forward, but you’re afraid that no amount of revising will be able to fix it.

So, How Do You Find That Balance?

Think realisticallyEscape Crappy First Draft Purgatory | Jeni Chappelle

The scenario: X author churns out a first draft in two weeks and then never touches it again but still manages to turn it into Everyone’s Favorite Book. Nope. That just doesn’t happen. Don’t believe it for one second. It isn’t possible to write a first draft that doesn’t require any revision.

Take perspective

You are way more judgmental of your writing than anyone else’s. When you find yourself being overly critical of your first draft, try to see it from another angle. Ask yourself how someone else might see your writing or what you might say to another writer to cheer them on.

Make notes

When you feel something is wrong or missing, instead of taking up all your writing time obsessing over it, write it down. I always keep a spiral notebook on my desk for just this reason. When I’m done writing (or editing), I look over my notes so the ideas can roll around in my head while I do other things. The answer almost always comes to me while I’m driving, showering, or cooking. Thank goodness for dictation apps!

Look at the big picture

Have you ever done this: You’ve been going along just fine—really in the flow—and then you come to a part that’s just hard to write. Instead of agonizing over every little detail of these hard parts, just write what you can and then move on to the parts that allow you to get back in the flow.


I know you know that you can’t write a perfect book the first time around. And you know I know you know it! Ask yourself what level of imperfection you are willing to accept at this stage. What are the most important aspects of your book? Keep your focus there and let go of the rest…for now.

Just remember that, when all is said and done (in your book, that is)…no matter how much you fuss over it the first time around…your first draft is still just that—a draft.  So don’t waste precious time and energy stressing over every little detail, when a lot of that is just going to change later anyway.

Now get back to writing!

How do you handle perfectionism when you are writing your first draft? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.


Don’t Forget!

Jeni Chappelle

Jeni Chappelle is a freelance editor. She considers herself a hobbit lives in an itty-bitty town a few miles from Charlotte, NC with her family and a menagerie. Jeni is a participating editor in #P2P, #RevPit and #ShoreIndie. You can visit her blog and learn more about her editing at www.jenichappelle.com.

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7 comments on “A Perfectionist’s Guide to Crappy First Drafts
  1. Oh, I can soooo relate to this post. Even when doing NaNoWriMo, I can’t just write on past the mistakes I make along the way. I HAVE to stop and correct them, I HAVE to rewrite bits I don’t like, I HAVE to make it the best I can even on a first draft. I CANNOT deliberately leave bad writing on my computer or on the page. I do recognisedd the first draft will need editing, and I do a LOT of editing before I let my work go, months of it.

    • It’s another great example of how writing advice just can’t be one-size-fits-all. I try not to look too much at my first draft, or I get sucked into the same constant editing. I saw an article yesterday that suggested you dim your monitor to change your font color so it’s all but impossible to even see your writing on the screen. Now that’s commitment!

  2. I see a first draft as the foundation and frame of a house. Get it wrong, and you’ll be tearing the whole thing down to fix things. From what I see, other writers are comfortable with that. I’m not, though I’m not going to let perfectionism over how a particular sentence or paragraph reads stop me from pushing ahead. That’s the sort of finish & polish detail one can address in the revision process.

  3. carlisdm says:

    Great article! what dictation apps do you recommend? any method for taking notes when in the shower? 🙂 I’ve always get good ideas when I’m in the shower

  4. Emily Tjaden says:

    Wow! This has been a perfect description of me lately. I’m the type of author to really stress over writing (or rather, avoiding) crappy first drafts. And over the summer (yes, I’m slow), I’ve realized a lot of what you’ve summed up in this post. Great advice! Thank you for posting. I really needed to hear that today. (:

  5. Because programming is my day job, I embrace perfectionism. I know my first draft won’t be perfect, but it’ll be damned good. The plot will work, the characterization will be solid, and there won’t be too many typos.

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