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Can You Write a Perfect First Draft?

As a book writing coach and editor, I’ve long-since preached that you can’t write a perfect first draft.

First drafts aren't always dreadful, mind you, but they’re never final drafts. They’re at least filled with sentence structures that need to be refined, repetitive word choices that need to be revised, plot points that aren't as cohesive as they should be...

And other such issues that might not ruin stories but still keep them from being professionally polished and really ready to publish.

That’s simply the way I always thought until I went to a NaNoWriMo group last year, where I met a guy who went by the pen name Roh.

According to him, he knows of plenty of writers who would strongly disagree with my first-draft assessment, including:

  • Mark Lawrence

  • Lee Child

  • Dean Koontz

There’s apparently also Dean Wesley Smith, an author who has more than 25 million books in print.

So, since I like to think of myself as someone who can scientifically assess her notions when challenged… I decided to check all four of them out.

Thanks to Roh, I have a clip of Dean Wesley Smith’s words on how it is possible to write a perfect first draft. (Or so he says.)

But in case you don’t have 38 minutes and five seconds to spare, here’s one of the main things he said:

And so, when I get to the end [of a first draft], I never look at it again. The biggest, biggest hate that I have about writing is that when somebody makes me look at one of my own books again.

I’m not trying to be contrary for the sake of being contrary, but I do think that statement is sad. Really, really sad. Not as in “what a loser you are,” but in an “I’m a little hurt for you” kind of way.

To me – and I know I might be wrong in this – the fact that he doesn’t want to re-read the stories he’s written even once means that he hasn’t made any emotional connections with his characters or plot. They mean nothing more to him than the immediate gratification of however many writing moments he exerts… and then the paycheck that comes from it all.

In his case, I would also add that I started to read his Cold Call novel. And while I was hardly horrified by his writing, I wasn’t blown away either.

For one thing, he used characters’ names too many times in the introductory snippet I read. He jumped back and forth between past and present details at seeming random. And he had a character make an assumption about a murder victim that didn’t seem realistic at all in the terror-filled moment.

So, based on that segment alone, I’m going to say that Dean Wesley Smith doesn’t disprove my theory that first drafts are never perfect drafts.

Twenty-five million copies or not, he should have sucked it up and re-read his writing.

The same thing goes for Dean Koontz, at least in his novel, The Silent Corner. At one point within the first six pages, he starts out six sentences in a row with “She,” which is an amateur move through and through.

That kind of repetition slows down the story, highlighting the word “she” instead of what “she” is doing. Moreover, it’s an issue that could have been easily caught and fixed if he'd bothered to publish a second draft instead of a first draft.

I’m not sure if I can be quite so critical of One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence. While I do think his paragraphs are far too bulky and I’m not entirely sure I appreciate his sentence sizes, that latter issue is more of a stylistic preference.

Funny enough, I’d say the same exact thing about The Midnight Line by Lee Child. Bulky paragraphs. Odd sentence structures. But I could see how other readers might prefer them that way.

And, in both cases, I was suitably intrigued to want to keep reading… though, sadly, I don't have the time.

As such, I’ll be the first person to admit that Lawrence and Child’s first few pages don’t prove me right. Then again, I’d have to read the rest of what they wrote before I admitted total defeat.

As it stands right now, I just don’t know.

Even if I am wrong, however, and those two authors can write an entirely publishable first draft, I’d still caution that they’re the exceptions to the rule. Most writers have to read and re-read and re-read what they wrote, with even experienced authors needing at least five, if not six rounds of editing before their stories read as well as they should.

It’s the nature of not being perfect ourselves... of being too far inside our own heads to catch every one of our errors... and of working with (hopefully) complex characters and elongated plots that stretch out for 70,000, 80,000, 90,000 words or more.

If you think you can navigate all of that to publishable perfection the first time around, then that is your right. But I do think you, your story and your readers deserve the dignity of at least one more read-through.

After all, what’s it going to hurt?

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