How To Get Through Writing Your Rough Draft

I’m slowly realizing two very true things about myself as a writer. First, patience seems to be a defining virtue in this season of my career. Second, I really hate whatever stage of the writing process I’m currently in.

Okay, maybe that second point is a little dramatic. After all, if I really disliked writing, I surely wouldn’t stick with it. But it certainly feels like whatever part of the writing process I’m focused on does give me the most struggle. And right now, that is the drafting process. Specifically, writing a rough draft of a brand new story. As with pitching and facing rejections, trying to write the first draft of a novel is teaching me patience, yet again.

This is a good lesson, albeit a humbling one. Back in the day, I used to crank out drafts with the speed and quality of Marvel’s recent CGI jobs. I was fast at writing and didn’t let the lack of quality didn’t trip me up. I knew editing and revision would refine the word vomit salad of my earliest draft and just kept pushing through whatever story problems the draft held. A 100,000 word draft took me an average of 3 months to write, and the first draft of Our Company of Fools was the climax of that era, when I wrote 50,000+ words in only 19 days.

I lost what felt like a rough-draft-writing superpower when my writing habits tapered off during college. In addition to losing steam and consistency, my perfectionism caught up with me as I started to be very future-minded, considering public perception of a book in ways I used to not worry as much about. As my knowledge of the writing craft and publishing industry grew, so, too, did my awareness of phantom readers. Considering what people might think of a book in the future started to paralyze me when trying to write a new story, even though I never, even to this day, let another soul read my rough drafts. Since Our Company of Fools,every attempted rough draft has either been abandoned or taken at least a year to finish. (The only exception to that are the Whitman Court books, which are only 20,000 words in length and take a month or two to write.)

In short, I struggle with writing rough drafts nowadays because I’m impatient with my work and with myself. I expect perfection. I expect drafting to come easily. I expect my outline to stay firm and not waver. I expect myself to write like I did when I was a teenager and wasn’t bogged down with all I’ve learned about writing as a business.  

As I’ve floundered my way through the rough draft of The Myth-Keepers Book 1, I’ve come to realize the ways that I’m letting my expectations and perfectionism stifle me. Part of my stumbling through writing this particular novel involved grappling with my mental blocks. In my reflection to help me overcome these problems, I’ve come to recognize four crucial pieces of perspective on rough drafts that are worthy of sharing with others.

First, keep in mind that there is no timeline for “finishing” your book. (Disclaimer: obviously if you’re under contract to meet a certain deadline, this isn’t exactly true, but for most of us out there, this mindset holds up.) You’ve got to throw aside any expectations or perceived “right” timeline for completing your book. There is no magic number of years or magic amount of time. Some people will be faster than average, others slower, and some right on whatever “average” it takes. Yes, I’d like to finish and get my books published as fast as possible. I feel the pressure to arrive at that finish line too. But in the end, trust the process, learn in the interim, and focus on making your book the best it can be, rather than speeding full steam ahead. A lack of deadlines for your work is freeing, because it gives you the flexibility to hone your craft and polish your work to make it all the more excellent. Embrace it while you’re in that stage. For us Christians, we can trust God with His timing for our stories as well.

On the flip side, don’t procrastinate. While a lack of concrete timeline for your writing is a gift, it can also be relied on as an excuse for not writing at all or for writing very little. Yes, there will be seasons when writing can’t be the priority or is nonexistent, whether it’s because of your day job that foots the bills, family commitments, or other life moments. However, no one is going to make you write your story except yourself. Be a good steward of what time you do have to write. Consider how you spend your free time. Are you quick to pick up writing or something else? To avoid falling into a pattern of procrastination, build up a consistent habit of writing daily (or another rhythm that fits with your schedule) or find an accountability partner to push and remind you to work on your novel.

When writing, embrace detours and questions. This was a struggle for me, as I tended to treat my outlines as law in the past. But honestly, your outline isn’t set in stone, so neither should the story of your rough draft. While you don’t necessarily want to pursue every little new thing that might pop up during the drafting process, do write down or keep track of the questions and ideas pop up while you’re writing your first draft. See what story issues emerge as you write. See what new possibilities for character development or conflict open up. Treat your rough draft as an exploration of where the story could go and let yourself experiment a little. Not every new idea or change in direction will be helpful, but in my experience, many of the detours I uncover during my writing process help make my story and characters stronger. If you need to pause writing to jot down a new outline, do that. My outlines have evolved into more of a recommended guide than a defined map over past few months, and it’s allowing me to write better stories as a result.

Finally, embrace the mess. Your first draft is going to be crap. Write that down and stick it on your laptop or notebook. Remember it. Burn it into your subconscious. Don’t let yourself get paralyzed by how bad you think your writing is. Let yourself enjoy the rough draft process and all its glorious awfulness. Persevere through the bumpy road that is your first draft. If it helps, don’t let anyone read it, like me. The rough draft is for you to figure out what you want your story to be. Figuring out how others will respond to it or how marketable it really is can come later, when you start refining it. Think of your story as a block of marble. The finished version will be a beautiful statue, but your first draft needs to be a rough sketch of how you’re going to carve it. If you try to attack that blank block of stone with perfectly carved details and no reference of what it should look like, you’re going to fail. Similarly, if you try to write a perfect draft right out of the gate, you can’t. That’s a recipe for frustration. Instead, take it slow and embrace the messiness of the process, one sketch at a time.

These are lessons I’m continually trying to keep in mind as I wade through my rough drafts. I hope they were encouraging to you as well. Let’s commit together to persist with patience in our rough draft writing, shall we?