The First Draft of Anything is Shit

Ernest Hemingway was a good writer. That’s not exactly a hot take. He’s one of the most well-known and widely-read authors ever. Hemingway himself, though, did offer a nice hot take on the subject of first drafts:

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.

Hemingway said this to a young writer who had come to him for advice. Given that most of these blog posts are first drafts, maybe you will agree with him. Boom, self-roasted.

Experienced writers will inevitably come to understand what Hemingway said in the first line about mechanical work. When you sit down to begin a manuscript, you are slowly dredging up the story from within yourself. You are laboring to bring the story to life. You already know the bones of the story, maybe, or at least you have a strong inkling of it. Now you set yourself to fleshing it out. As you write, it becomes real.

That’s the purpose of the first draft. It’s to bring into the light all the murky unknown, the subconscious flesh upon your story’s skeleton.

A lot of beginning writers never finish their first draft. People say, “Everyone has a novel in them”, right? A lot of people sit down to write that novel, but they never get to the end.

If you’re one of those people, and you actually got to the end, congratulations. Now you get to start all over and do it again. Because the first draft of your novel is shit.

The word “shit” here is obviously relative. The first draft of, say, something by Hemingway himself is going to be a lot less shitty than something, say, written by me. But relative to the best quality of which a writer is capable, the first draft is always shit.

There’s a reason your English/composition teachers in school always made you do a rough draft of your writing first. Even if, like me, you always just did the bare minimum of editing to that draft before turning it in as the final product. The first time you take a stab at something, you’re learning what it means to you. You’re getting to know yourself, rather than introducing someone else to it.

The first time you write your characters, you’re meeting them. The second or third or fourth time, you’re beginning to let them out into the light of day. That’s the real goal of writing, is to transition the world inside your head into the real world, and to make that transition as clean as possible.

True, it sucks. It’s quite uncomfortable, taking an entire finished manuscript and dropping it into a folder somewhere, never to see the light of day. You finished, you did it, you completed the fucking project that’s been haunting your dreams for months or years. And then, you have to do it all over again. It takes a special type of insanity to do that once, let alone many times.

That’s our lot in life, as writers. We write in order to learn about ourselves and our characters, and then we prepare a small slice of what we’ve learned to the world. We dress it up nice and pretty, and we show our readers one small sliver of our internal universe. That can be a beautiful thing.

-Jack Wolfe

P.S. This post is a first draft, and I will not be writing it again. Hell, I’m not even going to edit for typos. Suck it, Hemingway.

4 thoughts on “The First Draft of Anything is Shit”

  1. Imagine if Proust rewrote the draft of his In Search of Lost Time fifty times; now there’s a madlad peaked and pinnacled.
    In fairness, Hemingway was (indubitably) a messy writer. He likely required a heavy set of revisions. I’d revision most of his books this very today. Some more diligent authors will review piece by piece as they compose the book and that might lighten the whole draft experience, rather than having to mull over the entire thing again and again, which, as you said, is madness. Pure madness.


    1. The mere idea of writing fiction with the expectation that other people might read it is madness in and of itself. The drafting, the editing, redrafting… That’s just madness icing on the madness cake.

      If I rewrote ANYTHING fifty times, I’d end up shooting myself out of sheer self-loathing-fueled rage


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