I have seen something of an uptick in this advice going around, so I wanted to discuss why I hate the saying “All first drafts are garbage”.
Intention vs Actual Meaning
Before anything else, let’s define this saying and see if we can discern the intent from the meaning.
What I believe “All First Drafts are Garbage” intends to package up in a neat little laconic phrase is that first drafts are rough and impermanent. They will have many kinks, inconsistencies, errors, and gaps in logic, and that they aren’t near ready for publication.
But, this is not what “All first drafts are garbage” actually says. What it literally says according to the definition of the words used is “Each and every first draft is refuse; i.e., worthless.”
Isn’t it a bit pedantic to hate a piece of advice because of how it’s stated?
In an art form like writing, what you say and how you say it matters. Things like word choice, tone, and actual meaning vs intention are important. This is a profession of semantics, definitions, and language. If you write “Sally hated the idea of weddings” [I am knee-deep in a wedding scene right now <_<] but intended to say “Sally hated the idea of the wedding everyone expected her to have,” wouldn’t you agree that those sentences imply two entirely different things?
I especially despise this tip when accounting for my observation that most often it is given to young or inexperienced writers in high-pressure situations [like asking for critique online] who might not yet be able to discern the intent of the phrase from its literal meaning. I was one of those writers when I was younger, and it affected my ability to see any value in what I had accomplished. I know many writers who were or are the same. Sure, it might be easier for the adviser to shoot off a pithy little phrase rather than exerting the effort to explain themselves, but at that point would it not be better to simply say nothing at all?
The other secondary and perhaps hidden meaning of the saying “All First Drafts are Garbage” is to dissuade one from thinking that just because one has written a first draft doesn’t mean one is ready to package it up and sling it off to an agent (or Amazon or your blog followers or whoever), and that really is the hard truth [but also not what it actually says]. The intent here I believe is pure: it’s to dissuade unassuming new writers from happily sending off their first draft only to be disappointed or embarrassed when it’s rejected, criticized, or poorly reviewed.
Your story will go through hundreds if not thousands of changes as you rewrite, revise, and edit. Through this process, your first draft will be your Pole Star and the rawest form of your creativity. If nothing else, first drafts are the least well-polished version of your end product. You need drafts two, three, and beyond to refine things into the purest form you are able to achieve. As you continue to write, you will write better first drafts and you will streamline the process—but that requires writing many first drafts!
First Drafts are the Literal Opposite of Worthless.
Writing a manuscript is a monumental task. Dare I say most people who set out to write a book will never finish a draft. To my way of thinking, this means that we should not devalue our own or other’s accomplishments because it’s imperfect.
You cannot edit a blank page. You also cannot sell a blank page or post it online. In order to edit or publish a book, first, you have to...write a book. That necessitates completing the first draft. This will be the springboard off which you develop your story and skills, and that in itself makes first drafts worth something—even if your manuscript ends up locked in a box on a dusty shelf somewhere or lost in the cloud. No, first drafts aren’t perfect. Neither are second drafts, third drafts, or “finished” books. Your book will never truly be “done”. You will simply polish it to the point that you can say “Alright, I’m pleased with what I’ve accomplished and now I’m moving on.” Don’t allow writing the perfect book to become the enemy of writing a book.
I know it can be tempting to use sayings like “All First Drafts are Garbage” as a shield to defend yourself from others’ remarks or criticisms—or even your own. Inner monologues can be rough. So, why not beat it or them to the punch? Think constructively about your first draft. Rather than devoting your attention to everywhere your first drafts are deficient, try making a note of where things do work. You’ll have a much easier time writing draft two if you have an idea of what you are going for instead of trying to write around the things that you aren’t. Looking for the sweet instead of sour, to begin with, sets a positive tone for your next draft that will likely make you feel better about your ability and the manuscript. Happy artists make better art. [Card: NaNo Habits] Self-flagellating by declaring your story is trash before you’ve even begun draft two isn’t going to make you a better writer. It’s okay to be proud of things that are imperfect! In my opinion, no story we can write is totally un-salvageable. Some stories just require a bit more work than others.
When you are ready for outside critique—and it is my personal opinion that first drafts are not ready for outside critique—focus on constructive criticism. This is critique focused on solutions and improvement (as opposed to destructive criticism that zeros in on every single conceivable error in the name of “brutal honesty” [god I hate hate hate the idea that b r u t a l h o n e s t y is the only valid form of critique]. And for the sake of everything pure and holy please, please never throw away or delete your drafts! It could be impossible to get them back, and there might come a day when you wish you were able to read them again. First drafts are not garbage, so don’t throw them out!