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The Magical Powers of a First Draft

By Daniel Yocom

Becoming an accomplished writer requires you to write. It is a simple fact we all struggle with at times. I am sure you have heard all sorts of ways to get past writers’ block. For me it’s starting a new draft. It doesn’t matter if it is a story, article, essay, or any other work I might be doing as a writer (like this article right here).

Getting past this blockage of thought is just a small piece of the power of a first draft.

Because you are the audience for the first draft you can get away with a lot of problems in your writing. You can have grammatical issues, misspellings, and gaps in thought. None of that matters at this time of the writing. I can hear you saying how you can’t do that, you must correct as you go, fill things in, and you can’t start unless you know where you are going. That is because we were trained to write that way.

School Assignments

We are taught a level of academic writing as we grow up. We arrived in class and were given the assignment that we had to complete by the end of the class period. We were graded on what we submitted. For good or bad this is the style of academic writing many of us were taught to prepare us for the end of the year exams. For me this continued through my work as an undergraduate. I even was the lead project manager for a work project called “Right the First Time” which pushed that everything was without error on the first draft.

Luckily, since we are the audience of our first draft, it doesn’t have to be right the first time. We can redraft, edit, and create. This is where the magic of the first draft starts to show itself.

Do you want to tell a story, or be a storyteller?

This seems like it should be the same thing, but there’s a difference. You can write a story like a standard operating procedure many people have at their jobs:

  1. He woke up in the morning.

  2. He thought about the party from the night before.

  3. He remembered he was supposed to be going with the people who were there.

  4. He ran out his door to catch up with those who were waiting.

This tells a story, but did you recognize it as the scene from The Hobbit? Becoming a storyteller is how we, as writers, create a connection with a greater audience through our craft. Those four lines could be part of a first draft for many different stories depending on how elements of storytelling are added.

Here are my reasons first drafts have magical powers.

The first draft creates a template. Like the four lines above, we have told ourselves a story. It didn’t need to be complete like a school assignment.

The first draft lets us know if we have enough information. When we read our drafts and we find we are asking questions about it, then we have identified where we may want to add storytelling elements.

Our drafts allow us to see the complexity of the stories we are writing. It may need to be redrafted several times to identify the elements needed. I’ve completed the first drafts of stories just to set them aside while I learned needed skills to be a better storyteller.

First drafts are a great way of storing ideas for later use. If you are like me, you get story ideas while working on other projects. I found a quick, down, and dirty draft of the story (or a pointed outline) gave me enough information to return to an idea later. I do this for stories and article ideas.

I have also identified stories that were only for me, something I needed to say to myself and not yet ready to share with other people. This could be from having an element of the story was personal about myself or someone else. Through the first draft, since I am my audience, I knew what I was talking about and didn’t need to continue telling the story. It also is now part of my files, and it may be used later after seeing how I could pull certain elements from the story I could and wanted to use. In fact, one of these drafts did become a story that was included in a League anthology.

The biggest power of a first draft is its created. You can’t edit a blank page. You must start someplace. The creation of the draft allows us to identify many factors about the story and about ourselves. That draft will help each of us become a better storyteller by helping us learn what tools, skills, and information we need to complete the story for others to connect to it.

I’ve read about The Inklings, the writing group with J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and how their first drafts were not good stories. They went through many iterations to create the stories many of us enjoy. Each of those stories had to start someplace, and none of them started by being ready to publish. Some works came faster than others. Overall, they were a prolific group of writers who created novels, short stories, articles, sermons, plays, poetry, basically anything that could be written.

Each of us has that capability by first telling ourselves the story.

This article was developed from a presentation given by the author.

About the Author

Daniel Yocom writes about geeky things because people say to write what you know. Their love of the geeky, nerdy community dates to the 1960s through games, books, movies, and stranger things better shared in small groups. They’re an award-winning writer and editor of short stories, books, and hundreds of articles published by blogs, magazines, and gaming companies.

They enjoy attending conferences, conventions, festivals, sharing on panels, and presentations. Currently serving as the president of the League of Utah Writers Chapter, the Infinite Monkeys Genre Writers, they want to help others become the writer/author they desire to be.


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