To Write a Masterpiece, You Must First Make a Mess

Mess it up.

When my brother and I were little, our house used to have more LEGO in it than just about anything else.

I’m fairly certain building with LEGO so young is one of the reasons I became a writer. Creativity needs constant fuel, and when you’re only given instructions to build one model, after you’ve done that, suddenly you have hundreds of parts to choose from and the possibilities pile up before your eyes.

Everyone has different methods for preparing to build a LEGO castle, tower, boat, or whatever your imaginary choice of task might be. We always started by doing the thing our parents hated the most — dumping every single LEGO piece we owned onto the floor in one giant pile.

They never seemed to understand this, for us, was the most effective way of creating skyscrapers out of bricks. You don’t know what you have to work with until it’s all laid out in front of you.

It would be years before I realized this same method can also apply to writing.

What many people don’t learn about writing a book until after they have written one is that about 50 percent of the actual writing is not at all fun.

People write to tell stories, to make sense of things, to inform, to entertain, to give their thoughts a place to roam. Being a writer is often a rewarding and joyful experience.

The least entertaining moments often occur when you are sitting alone in the small segment of time you have found in your day to write, trying to complete the first draft of your dream project and feeling like you’re not writing anything anyone will ever want to read … not even future you.

Writing a story of any kind can be exciting and surprising and even addicting. It can also be extremely discouraging at times. As a general rule, we’re pretty terrible at judging the quality of our own work. We have some idea of whether or not what we’re writing is “good” (whatever that means). But whenever we start to doubt our own capabilities, we start to become more self-critical. And more determined to do everything right the first time.

It makes sense. Logically, you’d think that doing everything “well” the first time around will save you time later. Fewer edits, fewer rewrites. Make everything pretty now and you’ll only have to make minor adjustments at the end.

That’s just not how writing a first draft should go.

It CAN. It just might not be the best method for everyone.

This is not the time for making pretty words. It’s not the time to obsess over every small detail of every sentence you are crafting. It is not the time to worry that readers won’t understand you, experts won’t respect you, or nonbelievers won’t thank you.

In your own space, on your own time, in your own way, give yourself the freedom to mess up.

Go ahead. Write the worst thing you’ve ever written. Unravel the most unbelievable and unrealistic storylines. Make the wrong people fall in love, break up the ones you hoped would stay together forever. Spell things wrong, keep your sentences too short, stretch them out until they no longer make sense.

Before you can construct something beautiful, you must first make a mess. Before you can build a tower, you have to dump out the pieces. Before you can put together a bestselling novel, you first have to write a terrible one.

Only then can you figure out which pieces need to go where, in what order, and what purpose they will serve toward the whole product. A book, in its early drafts, is nothing more than a giant mess of a story that needed to be put onto paper before it could truly be built.

I’m sure there are people who take one LEGO piece out of the box at a time and build their masterpieces in segments, the same way there are writers who will obsessively write and rewrite a single chapter of a novel until they feel it is perfect before moving on to the next one.

Everyone has their own way. And if that is the way that works for you, by all means, embrace your way.

Just know that in doing this you risk never finishing. You risk tiring, burning out, losing interest, getting stuck. When you can’t see all the pieces in front of you, you start to wonder: What am I building? Where is this story taking me? What’s the right piece to pick out next? Am I on the right track?

But when you have a full first draft — in all its imperfection — you have the outline. The blueprint. You know where the story starts and how you want it to end. You have a good idea of which parts you want to keep and which you want to take away, which you want to leave exactly where they are and which you want to reconstruct.

This is why I tell you: When you are writing a first draft, the ONLY thing you should worry about is finishing it.

It’s not going to be a book an agent would want to represent. It isn’t going to look or sound good. It’s going to make you look like a writer who doesn’t know what they are doing.

That is why we edit, and rewrite, and rethink, and redo. A first draft is not supposed to be perfect. It is supposed to exist so that you can take bits and pieces of it and make something new, something better, something someone else might actually want to publish someday.

Dump out all the pieces. Lay it all out on the floor. Don’t bother organizing it all by color or shape or size. Just do whatever it takes to make sure every individual piece exists before you.

Get the story out. Every word you can think of. Don’t worry if it doesn’t follow your outline. Don’t concern yourself with whether or not you are being clear or clever or poetic or good. Just do whatever it takes to tell the story you have set out to tell.

Then, when that’s all written and done, you finally get to play.

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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2 thoughts on “To Write a Masterpiece, You Must First Make a Mess

  1. This is great and just what I needed. I seemed to think that the first draft should be almost perfect and of course it’s not. I’ve had to rewrite almost every paragraph, but it was a starting point, the first layer of stones in the building of a castle. Thanks for the reminder. Katie

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