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The First Draft Syndrome

once upon a timeIf you’ve ever made any kind of attempt at creative writing, you probably know the infamous first draft syndrome. Most writers will suffer from it at some point, and it usually comes after they’ve written anything – whether that be a short story, a novel a poem or anything else.

I have been suffering from the first draft syndrome for what feels like months. I wrote a ‘novel’ (I put it in inverted commas because of how ridiculous the adjective sounds for what I wrote) last November for National Novel Writing Month, with some kind of flimsy hope that something would emerge from it.

But dreams are dreams, and unfortunately rarely spring to life. I read the manuscript, felt a little bit dizzy at all the work that had to be done, and threw it under my bed.

I didn’t mean to forget about it. I told myself that I’d come back to it soon, but I needed to have a good long think about where the hell to start. Editing it seemed to be such a momentous task, I didn’t even know where to start or how to do it.

However weeks quickly turned into months, in that little way of theirs, and before I knew it, six months had gone by since I wrote the manuscript.

Occasionally, I remembered it, and considered looking at it. But even reading the first page terrified me. Despite this, last night, I decided to give editing it a go. And you know what I discovered? That the first draft syndrome really isn’t all that hard to overcome. It requires the very simple act of editing – something which may seem terrifying, but is really not that hard at all.

If you feel that you may be suffering from the first draft syndrome, then pull out that novel, short story or poem. Tell yourself sternly that you will edit it, and don’t worry about how bad it is at the moment.

Start editing it by just reading it. You have words – that’s a start. Now you just need to rephrase, rewrite and reorganise almost everything you’ve written. You can finally etch away those sentences that make you recoil in horror – the ones that you read months ago but ignored, simply because of how bad they were – and start again.

If you’re doubting your ability, look at what you’ve achieved. If you managed to write a first draft of anything, that should send out one clear message: you can write. Editing, you will discover, is in many ways a different skill to writing. It requires the same perseverance and blind determination, but it also requires ruthlessness and critical thinking. Be harsh with yourself, just not so harsh that you’re likely to throw the manuscript in the bin and cry in bed for a week.

If you’re editing your first draft on a computer, make sure to save it as a separate file, rather than saving over the original. This way, at least you’ll know that when you edit something, you still have the old version.

Overcoming the first draft syndrome is a difficult thing to do, but when you finally succeed in doing it, you will take on the position of a noble leader – a fighter – a writer. And when you’re fit to tear your hair out at four o’clock in the morning because you just can’t get chapter seven to work, then keep thinking of that word – writer – and think about how badly you want to be able to call yourself one.

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2 comments on “The First Draft Syndrome

  1. The only first draft syndrome for me is that I hate writing first drafts because I know they’re going to suck. I love the revision stage. Even as I’m draft I’m putting revision notes in the margins so I don’t find myself scrapping the book to start over. The revision state is where the magic happens for me and it’s where I truly fall in love with my manuscript.

    • Thanks for the comment! 🙂 Interesting to see the other perspective. I suppose for me, I’ve only just completed my first full manuscript, so I’m still working on falling in love with the revision process. But I definitely agree with you about the first draft sucking. It can be really disheartening to read the first draft and see just how bad it is, but there’s always the revision stage to rectify that! 😀

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