A First Draft Is Always a Tell-All

Show, don’t tell — but maybe not yet.


We’re all familiar with the cliche yet essential piece of advice all writing instructors dish out on the first day of class: “Show, don’t tell.”

This is, of course, a very simple way to get across a highly complex literary concept. It’s not just meant for novelists prone to giving too much of their characters and plots away. It’s also a tactic professionals like journalists use to not only pick out the most important information from mountains of research, but to figure out the best way to present it — the most effective way to tell a story.

Knowing all this — that we should only feed our readers so much info — it’s very easy to let our paranoia get in the way of writing and finishing a good story. Should I even bother with this chapter? Is this something the readers needs to know now, later — or even at all?

It’s things like this that trip us up. Make it extremely difficult to follow through.

What we need to remember, in these moments, is that there is a big difference between a first draft and a final product. You’re writing a first draft. Only a very select few will ever see this draft (hopefully — assuming you’re not filling your Amazon author page with first drafts).

That means it’s not the time to get it all on paper perfectly. It is, however, the time to get it all out — all of it; every detail, everything you feel the need to tell a theoretical reader. Even with an outline, you’re spilling thoughts straight from your head into a document. You can’t shake the idea that in third grade your character had a stuffed elephant named Ellie, so you work it into the story somehow, because it’s a detail you care about.

Ellie might not make it into the final draft. There’s a good chance she’ll maintain a starring role in your book’s nonessential backstory — the part no one ever reads.

Writing an article about someone’s life, you’ll start by writing out everything chronologically, getting all the facts down, revealing everything you know, because all you’re worried about right now is getting it out of your head. Only later will you cut and paste and trim and add vibrant color. It’s unclear at the start what the reader needs to be told and what they should be left to figure out for themselves. You can’t know that until you’re working on revising something that’s already finished.

Don’t worry about being clever, or mysterious, or crafty. Not yet. You need to get your story out, no matter how disjointed or flat it might seem. They call it a rough draft for a reason.

You’ll have plenty of time to prime and polish it. In its earliest stages, it’s just a bunch of words. They’re much easier to sculpt and refine when they’re on paper instead of tumbling around in your head.

Be patient. Take your time. It will all come together, eventually.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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11 thoughts on “A First Draft Is Always a Tell-All

  1. The first sentence is always the hardest part, which is why it is always best to know it before you start. Like Bernard Cornwell once said every writer has sat there looking at a blank page from time to time but once you break through that barrier their is no greater feeling then when you have written the first chapter.

    1. Very true. I love first sentences. I always tell myself there will be time to go back and revise it later if it’s not quite the right one. No use agonizing over it too much if it keeps you from writing anything else.

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