I have worked as a copy editor, a content editor, a writer, and more. I am all about fact-checking, using good sources, and producing well-informed, clear, and concise content every single time.
But I think the idea that what we publish has to be “perfect” gets in the way of many writers’ ability to not only finish writing, but also to start writing anything at all.
In writing, what most people don’t see is all the imperfections that come before a seemingly flawless piece of work. Many writers focus too much on those flaws — fixing them or preventing them altogether — and impair their own ability to sit down and write a bunch of words.
Take research, for example. I know of writers who feel they have to know every detail of a certain subject before they can start writing about it. In some cases, I understand why this might seem important. But keep in mind that some distractions are not as obvious as others.
I, too, was once painfully distracted by my need to do everything right the first time. Here’s how I fixed that.
I do minimal research — as much as is needed to make the story happen in a way that makes sense as I’m writing it, and nothing more. I don’t need to be an expert in biomedical engineering to write about a character who is pursuing this career — at least, not yet. I need a little background information, but Wikipedia suffices. For now.
I also don’t need to know random slang in a foreign language I do not speak fluently — I can write what I want a character to say in brackets in my native language and get the information I need later.
Anything that will slow my productivity and not actually help me accomplish my goal (to write) is not worth my time right now. And I think that’s a lesson many frantic and uncertain aspiring writers have yet to learn, especially about fiction writing and first drafts.
When you are writing a first draft, ALL THAT MATTERS is that you finish that first draft. THEN you can worry about researching everything you need to know about engineering and French slang. If it applies to your story significantly, that is.
Now, this DOES NOT apply to nonfiction or journalism, and it does not work if the progression of your story depends on knowing a key fact about something. If finishing my book required that I knew enough about engineering to portray a character solving a crime using their expertise or something, I’d probably have to know more than what I can look up in five seconds on Wikipedia.
This is just an example. I am not a mystery writer. I can’t even figure out where all my own hair ties disappear to in the middle of the night, OK?
A first draft is meant to be full of mistakes and knowledge holes and loose ends. It is not meant to be published with these flaws. But you cannot expect to ever be able to fix any of these things if you never have a complete first draft to work with — which is why I am such a strong advocate for finishing the book first above all else.
You are allowed to spell things wrong.
You are allowed to mess up your own timeline five different ways.
You’re allowed not to know everything.
You’re allowed to use cliches, tropes, and not-that-great writing just to get the story out.
Will any of this make the actual writing any easier? Probably not — and there’s still plenty of work to come after that first draft comes to a close.
But you have permission to write the worst book that has ever been written this time around. Because at least you’ll have written a book. And not everyone can say that.
Write the book. Write it terribly. Do everything wrong.
The only way to learn how to do things right is by messing them up, then going back and doing better the next time. Never forget that. Ever.
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.