First Draft is Final: Reality or Myth?

There is a theory that your first draft should be your final draft. Some professional writers teach this, and they say you should only make changes if an editor asks for them. (I assume they mean the first full complete draft, ignoring any abortive starts or early versions that had the wrong ending.)

This could not be further from the way I work. Even after 1-2 weeks of outlining a story–worldbuilding, designing the plot, sketching the characters–I still go through one major draft before I send the story for critiques, another major draft on rewrite, then more critiques if the story still needs it and a third major draft. Each of these drafts includes 3-6 “subdrafts” that still involve major changes, partly because it takes me several iterations to get the language right for how I want to express something. I’ve also had several astute editors suggest changes to a few of my stories even after that, changes that were very good ideas, and I then went through a fourth major draft to impliment them. So my first draft is nowhere near final.

I know many other writers who don’t outline, and for them the first draft is their “feeling-out” process where they figure out the same sorts of things that I do in my outlining–the nature of the world, the progression of the plot, and the identities of the characters. The first draft is not final for them either.

I recognize that for many pros, the first draft may be the final draft. They know what they’re doing, and they’ve been doing it a long time. I don’t like my multi-draft process–I wish I could do it more efficiently–but it’s the only way I can get things to work for me. I hope someday I will be able to streamline it.

But as a college teacher, I’m dubious of telling aspiring writers that their first draft should be their final one. They don’t yet know what they’re doing, and encouraging them to submit their first drafts to markets seems almost irresponsible. They–perhaps “we,” because I count myself as still aspiring–must learn how to shape our natural output into a readable story for a genre audience. Rewriting is a vital step in this. Sending out drafts prematurely only leads to form rejections, which don’t teach anything.

So, First Draft is Final Draft: a Myth for most, Reality for a lucky, skilled few, a hope and eventual goal for me, but a risky message for aspiring novices.

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