Sedate Your Inner Perfectionist During First Drafts

Dirty paper rough draftMany aspiring authors struggle to get through their first drafts. This is understandable. You have a brilliant idea, and your story is going to be more than a mere book. It will be a Book of monumental influence and exposure. The trouble is, once you get started on the actual draft, you’ll start seeing flaws, holes, and weaknesses throughout your prose and plot. This will be especially true for any of you who are committing to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November.

Completing the NaNoWriMo challenge requires you to write 50,000 words in a novel during the month of November (technically you are supposed to complete a 50,000-word novel, but many novels run much longer than that). To accomplish that feat, especially if you’re someone with a day job, children, or a full-time student course-load, you’re going to be churning out a lot of crap and filler words—there’s just no escaping it.

Why Crap is Kosher

The thing is, that’s okay. Regardless of how quickly you’re writing, your first draft is still going to contain a lot of crap. That’s what your own revisions, critique groups, and editors are for. First drafts should follow the advice of editor Maxwell Perkins: “Just get it down on paper, and then we’ll see what to do with it.”

Incidentally, Maxwell Perkins is a legend of editing and publishing. He edited and published writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. If the editor of immortal, canonized authors says you really need to just spew your ideas out and think about it later, why should you insist otherwise?

There are a few writers who can turn out nearly impeccable first drafts. However, they are probably aliens. While you’re writing your first draft, cling to your humanity and allow yourself to make mistakes, fumble through troublesome scenes, and throw in a few clichés. It won’t kill you or your story.

How to Sedate Your Inner Perfectionist

When you’re writing your first draft, pattern your #1 rule off Perkins’s advice: Just get it down on paper. Sedate the perfectionist living in your mind and lock him or her in a closet until you’ve written “The End” for the first time. You can use several perfectionist sedatives. You’ll probably have to brew up a particular concoction that suits your particular perfectionist, but here are a few ideas.

Write like you’ve already fixed the problem. When you recognize a fatal flaw in your story, make a conscious decision to write like you’ve already fixed it. For example, if you realize you need a new character, or you need to merge two or more characters, start using the new character right now, even though he or she hasn’t been introduced earlier in the draft. While I was in Brandon Sanderson’s writing class, he explained that this is part of his writing process. In his first drafts, he pretends he’s already made the changes he needs; his first revision consists of going back and filling in those changes. Pretending you’ve already solved the problem can keep you calm, which helps keep your inner perfectionist deep in dreams of neatly organized pencils.

Keep careful notes—away from your draft. If you know you’ve used the word “chilly” approximately 6 million times in a particular chapter, instead of taking the time to go back and replace all your frigid adjectives, make a note of it in a separate document or in a separate notebook. Keeping notes will reassure your inner perfectionist that even if he or she is experiencing nightmares during sedation, there will be a way to straighten everything out when hibernation ends. If you have a list of flaws, it’ll be easy to trek through them in your first pass of revisions, but you don’t have to spend time and lose momentum fixing them in the first draft. Storing that list separate from your draft keeps you from thinking too hard about the flaws while you’re creating.

Display a motivational phrase. Sometimes all you need to keep your inner perfectionist asleep is a comforting lullaby mantra you can chant when you see flaws. Try displaying Maxwell Perkins’s advice close to wherever you write. Maybe you need something more direct, like “Crap is okay … for now.” These sorts of phrases are useful because they remind you that now is not the time to stress about how many syllables you put in the last sentence; they also don’t advise you to settle for less than you’re capable of. Choose a phrase that reminds you that this is step one, and that the first step in a marathon doesn’t need to be perfect.

You’ve got time to make up for stumbles and implement second thoughts during later drafts and revisions. You are capable of writing a Book, but your first draft doesn’t need to be anything more than a draft.

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2 thoughts on “Sedate Your Inner Perfectionist During First Drafts

  1. This is all really great advice for a really big problem with writers!
    My personal trick is to always write something that keeps me excited to keep going. If I always have an upcoming scene that looks great, it’s easier for me to forget that scene I just botched in favor of pushing forward. As long as I’m still excited about what is to come, it is a lot easier to keep pushing forward.
    That might be why I always plan my endings first…hmm…
    But yeah. Curb that inner editor! You’ll have plenty of time to fix the mess-ups after you’ve finished the first draft.

    • That sounds like good advice for writing in general. If there’s always something coming that keeps you excited, chances are that it’s going to be something that keeps your reader excited as well.

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