The Uncertainty Principle: A.K.A The First Draft – or why Hemingway might be wrong

Recently, I wrote a short story for a competition entry on the theme of ‘Lost and Found’. I’d been thinking of the first line for a few days – I  first lost my mind in March of ’53 –  when I decided I had to get it down and see where it took me. Surprisingly, or perhaps by the plan of my subconscious, I completed my first draft right on the word count target. I put it away for a few days, letting my mind mull over what I had written and thinking about how it might morph into a cohesive narrative that I could submit.

Except, when I came back to it I didn’t have anything to alter. I read it over, liked it and identified a number of subtle threads that ran through it that I hadn’t intentionally realised I had integrated into the text. But, this was a first draft – I couldn’t trust it: right? I poured over the words, the sentences, the paragraphs and as a result only added a few lines to the end to make the climax less maudlin. I sighed and put it to one side.

Then, last week I decided to try out another approach. I rewrote an entire second draft. The character was the same, but I added other people and interactions, putting my protagonist in an entirely different situation. Yes, I thought, this is progress – from a passive scenario to a more active one with dialogue. This, I thought, is something I can work with; it’s flawed and imperfect and will need development. That is much more like the process I’m used to.

Can I disagree with Hemingway?

Can I disagree with Hemingway?

On Sunday I read them both through. I became confused and disappointed. My original first draft was still more powerful and conveyed more emotional context. I still couldn’t find anything wrong with it – oh no, wait, there was a spelling mistake. I couldn’t quite believe I had written a story whose shape, pace and characterisation were all present right from the start.

In the end I got my partner to read over both drafts. He didn’t see what the problem was – the first one was great, it spoke of the loss and difficulties of my character, even though it comprised mostly of internal dialogue; it was this that anchored it to the page and permitted the reader to see the world through my protagonist’s eyes. (I should note that these weren’t my partner’s ACTUAL words – he’s not really into fiction – this was my impression of the conversation we had about it afterwards)

So, today I am preparing a first draft story for submission into a competition. I am still afraid that it ‘isn’t good enough’ but can’t fathom how I could possibly improve on it. It seems like the best version of the story that I could write – so it must be the one to submit. Still, I can’t help but wonder what it is about first drafts that scare us so much? Either we think they are drivel and dismiss them, or they present themselves on the page just as we intended and we feel duped because that’s not what we’ve been told should really happen.

I guess what it has taught me is to have faith in myself. On occasion I might get it right first time. It could be beginner’s luck in this particular instance, or it could be that I’ve developed my craft well enough that, for this story, I knew exactly what I wanted to say and said it just the way I wanted. I’ve struggled so much with the short story format in the past that I’ve begun to doubt myself, not trusting in the instincts I have to tell the story in my own way. Things are different this time, though, because I trust in my words.

It makes me wonder if a draft isn’t what I thought it was; an altered version of that which went before, preferably an improved one. This time around I could argue I’ve drafted three versions, only I didn’t actually change anything in my text as I went through this process. I may have added three more sentences, fixed a spelling mistake – but aren’t these things we usually do whilst progressing through our drafts? So I didn’t actually change anything, but I did examine it, scrutinise the story and analyse the structure. Surely this is the process of successful drafting? Therefore, maybe this isn’t a true first draft at all, perhaps I’m submitting my third draft in reality even though nothing has really altered.

It doesn’t quite feel that way though, as it has all come together so easily. And maybe that’s the problem – Thomas Mann said that “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I’ve accepted this concept so deeply that I when the words comes easily I don’t trust it. But perhaps I should, on those rare occasions when serendipity provides me with the story to tell that is just right for this time and place; maybe we need to stop being so critical and realise that, as writers, we can write a decent first draft.


Have you ever been happy with your own first draft? How much do you trust in the words that you write first time around? Can a first draft ever be a final draft, or is the drafting process integral to understanding what you’ve written and why, even if you don’t change things?
Let me know in comments, or Tweet me.



8 responses to “The Uncertainty Principle: A.K.A The First Draft – or why Hemingway might be wrong

  1. For some people, first drafts have an amazing combination of raw emotion and the writer’s real voice. Which I want to read. And hear.

  2. Hi Cat
    I’m finally coming to the end of my research and have 2 notebooks full of information on characters, the period as it’s a historical novel, and articles, papers etc, but I have now come to a complete standstill as to where and how to get this all down! Do I type it all up and put the information into folders on Word and risk losing them because there are so many and I can’t find them again; or is there a software package I can use that can guide me through all this and make it easier?

    Any help and advice you can give me on this, my first step, would be gratefully appreciated.

    Best wishes


  3. My first drafts tend to be very polished. Something about my writing process makes what I write on the first go almost all the way there, with random bad word choices, awkward phrasing, and the rare typo being my only major fixes.

    But where all my revision comes into play is that my first drafts tend to have not enough emotion, motivation, and “point” to the story. Some characters I write naturally resonate with me, so writing them is easy. Others are harder to put there, and I have to go back and put the depth back into the draft.

    I’ve found out firsthand with my novel Darkness Concealed. I’m on my third draft (after an exceptionally polished second draft), and rewriting entire scenes either from scratch or line by line, infusing characteristics that simply weren’t there before

    In one recent example, I turned a character going insane from cliche and abrupt to nuanced and believable. When he turns away from his own friends, convinced they’re trying to stop him from doing something (which to them, and to the reader, is absolutely nuts), it resonated with me far stronger than the original version. His words and reactions are clearly deranged, but in a “show” instead of “tell” sense.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that in some cases, yes, the first draft might be just about there aside from minor mechanics. In others, what exactly is “wrong” isn’t necessarily telling the story, but making it resonate.

  4. I’m always terrified of my first drafts! But they never turn out as bad as you think. What’s that they say- your first instinct is always right. And what’s more instinctive than writing?

    • Excellent point. The more experience I have writing and editing, the more confident I am that my first drafts indicate the core of what I’m trying to say – just perhaps not as eloquently as I would like to tell it!
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. God luck with your writing – here’s to many surprising first drafts! 🙂

  5. My first drafts are all pretty much how I want them. Yes, I re-phrase bits to make them clearer and maybe alter bits to tie the narrative together so as not to leave the reader floundering, but the basic story remains unchanged.

    I’ve found that editing kind of strips away any raw, emotive feelings in my writing. When I kill a character and it’s heart-wrenching and I’m scribbling away to get the feelings out (for example), I don’t want to be diluting it with words.

    Words are the devil.

    Your first draft is good? Go with it. See where it takes you. x

    • Thanks doll. It’s true you can edit out the emotion in a piece if you’re too heavy handed with the red pen. My story is from the POV of a dementia sufferer so perhaps that’s why the first draft, raw, emotive version reads so much better than a redrafted one.
      Thanks for sharing.

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