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The myth of the good first draft?


Just about everything I've read or watched on first drafts says that there is no such thing as a good first draft. Words like 'garbage,' 'trash,' 'inevitably sucks,' etc., crop up at just about every turn. My question is: does anyone know of any examples of first drafts of successful novels that needed very little work?


Wasn't Frankenstein written in 11 days? Of course if you read the original, you could easily believe it had only one draft.
The thing to remember is that every writer is different and everyone has his own proces. As a counterpoint to writing = rewriting, there is Heinlein's rules on writing, where nr 3 sais: You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order. One of the very vocal advocates for never rewrite is Dean Wesly Smith (check Heinlein’s Rules: Introduction – Dean Wesley Smith). He never rewrites and is a succesful full-time author. Also, if you check a lot of indie-author forums, there are plenty out there who do very little editing.

The thing is that it very much depends on your proces. Smith outlines a lot. I think I remember reading a blog post from him where he described an outline which was the size of a novella. With that much outlining, you basically edit before you start writing (so you can edit a blank page after all... ;) ). Also, he starts his writing sessions by cleaning up what he wrote in the previous session. So, he does edit, just not in the sense that most people do.

I think as a rule of thumb you find that the more a writer outlines, the less he needs to edit later on. And that the more experienced a writer becomes the less he needs to edit, or maybe he starts editing different things.

If you're curious about something you wrote and if it needs an edit, then the only way to judge that is to have someone read it. It should probably be someone who knows your (sub)genre very well. And having a professional editor read it and provide feedback of course helps immensely as well.

As a side note, I personally believe that the best way to grow and improve as a writer is to do this anyway. You can only improve something if you know what you're doing wrong. And it's very hard to judge your own work, especially just after you've written it. So it helps to get outside feedback from people knowledgeable about your genre and about writing.


Dean Wesly Smith calls his second draft the first draft. His first draft is just a practice session, not a "real" write.

Heinlein was notoriously know for constantly rewriting his work. That's why he had the rule never to rewrite. But he didn't follow his own rule.

A better rule is: do not rewrite when a manuscript is at a publisher. If a ms is not being considered by a publisher, then it's fine to rewrite it.

Mad Swede

Any book written by best selling thriller author Dick Francis is an example of a successful first draft. He was well known for never re-writing, and he said himself that much of this was down to his experience as a journalist. As a journalist (and former champion jockey) covering horse racing, he learnt that the copy he sent in to the newspaper had to be right as the editors didn't have time for a re-write before going to print. And as he didn't have much time to write his copy because of the number of races and interviews he would have to cover at the meet, the copy he wrote had to be right the first time he wrote it.

All writers are different. Some outline in detail and write from there. Others write several drafts in a cyclical process. And some, like Dick Francis, only ever write one draft. A lot depends on your experience, and also how good you are at expressing what you see in your mind as you start to write.


There have been pieces of fanfiction that I've written that are pretty much perfect on the first draft. There might be some minor spelling/grammar things to fix but no major structural things. But those are also a few thousand words, maximum, and tend to be highly experimental. And also they're fanfiction so I don't have to do a lot of heavy lifting establishing characters/setting. And I read them years later and they're still really good!

But the longer and more complicated your piece is, the more chances things can go wrong when you're making it, the more likely it is your ideas in chapter 1 will shift and morph by chapter 30. Part of editing is making everything internally consistent. But also as you get better at writing, the better you'll get at planning and things being more crystalized at the start, which can make this less likely to happen. But stories and characters can always surprise you and change. Things can happen in the world that will make you shift what happens (like your fantasy story about someone using magic to fight a pandemic might not feel like a good idea anymore).

It also depends on what you call a draft. Is the moment you write "the end" the end of the first and as soon as you hit spell check the start of the second? Is it only a new draft once you make a major change? Or does the story need to be totally re-written to be a new draft? A fair number of people "edit as they go" so it's no surprise that they only ever have one or two drafts. Other people get it all out first before editing. So the number of drafts a story might have is very different depending on the writer and project.


A writing how-to book by a well-known YA novelist (who's name I have now forgotten, but whose novels I read voraciously) mentioned that he sent his first draft off to his editor without touching it. So he could be another example, which would be much more relevant to your question if I remembered his name.

For me, that advice proved to be very unhelpful. It made me think there was something magical about a first draft that I had to be careful to keep while editing. It resulted in a lot of time spent staring at the blank page while drafting, and a lot of really unnecessary concern about losing the "magic" while editing.

I find the "first draft sucks" idea is more of a helpful mentality to have writing drafting rather than an inevitability. I switched to this mindset midway through drafting my current project. I got through the last section of the novel a whole lot quicker than the first, before I made the change. And so far, I haven't needed to edit the quickly-written sections that much more than the slowly written sections.


Article Team
Could there be novels that went from word processor right to publishing with almost no work? Sure. But I'll bet those are few and far between. In terms of say baseball, it's like someone pitching the perfect game or hitting for the cycle. The gazillion factors in place have to line up.

Another thing to think about is how we're defining first drafts. There's a huge gray area here. Some authors create an outline by going through a trial run of writing out the entire novel. Then, they write the "first" draft using the initial effort as their guide. Other authors work at a snail's pace and refine everything as they go. So they don't proceed until a section has been refined to heck. So technically, they only need one draft, but there was tons of work done to get there. For me, I do a pretty in-depth outline and when I'm writing the first draft, I'll course correct, and when I begin each writing session, I go back and reread previous sections to get up to speed again. If I find errors, I correct and change. So by the time I've finished the official "first" draft, I've probably made at least a half a dozen passes over the text already.

So, IMHO, we have to take with a grain of salt what authors say and claim, regardless of how successful they are. Because we have no way of knowing exactly how they're defining things and how they truly work. They may not make changes to their first draft, but what about their editing staff? They may not make chances once the first draft is done, but how many changes do they make while the first draft is in progress?

I think we should also examine the point of saying all first drafts are crap. It's to let people know not to expect perfection and get discouraged with their initial attempts. It's also to prevent someone, high after finishing the first draft of their first novel, from taking that, slapping a cover on it, and charging into publish mode.

Ned Marcus

The first draft always sucks idea is to free writers so they can be more creative without fussing over small details or mistakes that can easily be fixed later. First drafts get better—at least, that's my experience. I think the advice is useful if it's not taken too seriously.

Ned Marcus

I think you hit upon something that applies to all writing advice. They're guidelines not hard rules. Understand why they exist. Don't just follow blindly.

Yes. The only writing rule I agree with is that you can do anything as long as it works.


Myth Weaver
I’ll concur with the it’s a psychological boost, not reality. I’m not saying a first draft is the same as the final draft, but rather that the first draft is good… clean up typoes and stupid crap, and publish a good book? Yup.


Zelazny supposedly wrote Jack of Shadows in one sitting and sent it in and it was published as is. I love it and was lucky enough to find an original hardback. So, I guess it does exist. But I think the exception(s) prove the rule.