Years ago I heard a rumor that the greatest writers known to Western civilization firmly believed that their first drafts were horrendous. This was before I was a writer — it was when I was a pupating scribbler and developing my skills. I read everything I could find on the writing life, but of course, times were different back then. There was no Internet, I had no way to connect to other writers to see how they felt about things, so the only way I could connect to other writers was though books.
But despite my isolation, I couldn’t believe that The Greats were so lacking in confidence — surely after so many years of practice, writing must have come easy to them. They were blessed, they shot music out of their fingertips, they were, in short, divine. Of course, I was wrong — very wrong, and that’s something I’ve spent years telling everyone who asked me about learning to do what I do.
“The first draft of anything is shit.” That’s Ernest Hemingway, but it could as easily be Stephen King or Harper Lee. My writing’s shit, your writing’s shit, all of our writing is shit — at first. The trick is learning how to polish those turds until they shine, that’s where writing goes from being a raw art to a finely honed skill.
The first draft is about catching the emotions, the sentiment, the general idea of the thing. The subsequent edits are for fixing the hundreds of errors you left in your wake. Stephen King recommends not stopping when you’re working on a first draft — not even to look up the spelling of a word or a synonym. That may work for him, but no matter how much advice you get, remember that the process is yours.
Your first draft is shit, but it’s your first draft. It’s a complete and whole thing that belongs to your soul alone — getting to the end is the most important part of the journey. I tell people asking for advice to expect their first drafts to be shit, because even if they’re not shit, they’re going to think they are and want to quit. Giving up on a first draft is like leaving the eyebrows off the Mona Lisa — you’re all but there, there’s simply no reason to stop.
I don’t know a lot of writers who are confident, the best of the best never are — they’re always seeking perfection, but they have learned when they can’t do anything more. Writing is a thing that’s about you, as a writer, and there is never going to be another writer just like you. Your process is yours, but until you figure it out, try to remember that it’s normal for your first draft to be shit.