It’s Only A Rough Draft

draftsWhat you see here are copies of the first drafts of novels by J.G. Ballard and Vladimir Nabokov.The content doesn’t matter. I just want to point out the mess. Both pages are a blur of corrections, mistakes, and notes. How many times did the author say, “That shouldn’t go here, it should go there,” or “not that word, this word”?  Those things are a mess.

I’m sure if we could see the first drafts of most of our favorite works of literature; there would be similar lines, arrows and scribbles. And not just classic literature. First drafts named the movie “Alien” as “Star Beast.” A first draft gave us Annikin Starkiller instead of Luke Skywalker. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle almost gave us Detective Sherringford assisted by Dr. Ormond Sacker instead of their more famous names, Sherlock Holmes and Watson.

The fact is that most finished products do not perfectly reflect their beginnings. The first draft is the opening salvo. It’s the effort on the part of its creator to get started, to get the ball rolling. And it’s usually bad. Or as Ernest Hemingway so succinctly and eloquently put it, “All first drafts are shit.”

Most writers have to push through the first draft, ignoring the voice in their head saying, “This is drivel, why would anyone ever read this crap?” It’s a battle to keep going, putting it on paper, and ignore the inevitable revisions. Every word, every line will likely end in some other form, but they keep writing.

Does the finished product make it worth the pain? I imagine most authors would say yes. I know we who have enjoyed their creations would say yes.

So if it works for art, why not people?

This life of yours is not a finished product. You are on your first draft. You’re full of mistakes and wrong words. You’re covered with lines and arrows and scribbles.

But that’s understandable because you’re only a first draft, not the finished product. You’re a mess. But you’re also a first draft. Like many authors before, you may have a voice in your head that says, “You’re crap. Why would anyone ever listen to what you have to say?” It’s no wonder because you’re a first draft.

The sad thing is that some of us never move beyond the rough draft stage of life. We are dragged down by the mess, discouraged by the mistakes and misspellings. We think what we are is what we will always be, and we give up even before we begin.

Novelist Beth Revis said about her work, “I wrote a book. It sucked. I wrote nine more books. They sucked, too…then I wrote one more book.” We applaud her dedication and perseverance, yet we do not give ourselves the same freedom. We are stuck on version one, and we never move on.

Maybe it’s time to move on to the revision stage. We’ve gotten our mistakes down on paper, and now we can push ahead. We start correcting the mistakes, patching the holes and reworking the parts that don’t make sense. It’s a natural part of the process. If you’re ready to move forward and start the revisions your first draft has needed, here are four things to remember:

Accept what is good.

If you notice on those original manuscripts, not everything is crossed out. There is quite a bit left unchanged. That’s not to say in some future revision that didn’t happen, but at the moment, the author was satisfied with the words on the page. So it is with us; not everything is a mistake. Take the time to notice what is working well. Take a moment and appreciate the good that exists in your life. You are not the sum of your mistakes. There is brilliance mixed with the blunders.  Acknowledge that and be grateful for it.

Be willing to change.

No first draft will ever improve if the author refuses to make changes. There must be corrections. We must be willing to draw a line through parts of ourselves and our lives and start over. We must be willing to say, “This doesn’t work,” and find an alternative that does. I amaze myself sometimes at the paradox within me. I ruthlessly criticize my messy, mistake-ridden first draft of a life, then I stubbornly refuse to make the necessary revisions. If we are ever to finish a classic, it must come at the expense of the ordinary. Life, as does art, follows a simple rule: Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Ask for help.

Even Pulitzer Prize winners need an editor. You can’t do it all yourself. You can’t see all the mistakes. You can’t separate yourself from your work enough to see when certain parts just aren’t working. That’s why authors need an editor, and that’s why we all need a mentor. Whether it’s a coach, counselor, friend, consultant or all of the above, we need someone who has the separation and perspective to offer us a fresh set of eyes on our lives. It’s not a sign of weakness to admit you need help. It’s a sign of sanity.

Be patient, others are on their first draft as well.

Even if we are willing to admit to and accept our unfinished state, it is amazing how we expect more from others. But don’t others need the same grace we need? They are a messy rough draft waiting for revisions as well. If we’d stop beating each other up for the state we’re in, we might be able to help each other get where we want to go. Cut people some slack. They’re full of mistakes and misspellings just like us.

Start now!

Maybe you’ve been in the rough draft stage for more years than you’d care to count. Perhaps you’ve never moved on to the revisions. That’s okay, start now. Examine your life and look for the things that need to change. Draw some lines through some parts of your past, through some parts of your heart. Scribble out the mistakes and replace them with something that makes sense now. It doesn’t matter how long it has taken you to start, just begin now.

The beautiful thing about life is that every day is a chance for another rewrite. Move on from that hideous first draft and see what beauty lies behind its surface.

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  • Julie Connor, Ed.D. May 4, 2015, 12:18 am

    I love this! When I was working on my dissertation, a professor on my committee coated my submissions in red with lots of comments and suggestions. I thanked her and graciously raved about her support and encouragement. She said, “Oh, I’m afraid many people don’t appreciate it. I’ve been reported to the Dean – multiple times.” I didn’t understand. Her suggestions made me a better writer. As a research editor, I did to others what she did to me because I found her comments so helpful. And they did to me what they did to her – multiple times. I’ve learned that the people – like me – who want to learn and grow by helpful input and valuable learning experiences will continue to learn and grow. Not everyone wants to move forward. And that’s okay. Take what you like and ignore the rest. I choose to run with the champions.

    • May 4, 2015, 12:26 am

      Love that. Embrace the red pen!

  • J Rhodes May 17, 2016, 4:20 pm

    Loved your article–lots of truth, on lots of levels, running through it.

    • May 17, 2016, 4:22 pm

      Thanks very much


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