First Drafts: A Parable
Updated: Jul 13
If you have a writing project ahead of you but your perfectionism is whispering to you about all the things you might do wrong--or you've written your first draft, and you're feeling disheartened because it is a bit of a mess, then this story is for you:
Xenobia loved to ride bicycles (as this is a parable, please substitute writing-related analogs for all bicycle references). She found it exhilarating that a simple machine could let her go so far, so fast. One day, (please select the appropriate plot point to reflect your situation): (A) Xenobia's love of bicycles became so great that she couldn't help but try building one herself. (B) Xenobia decided to make a bicycle for her dear cousin Howie as a birthday gift. (C) Xenobia was asked to build a bicycle by her boss/teacher/colleague.
Because Xenobia was an avid rider of bicycles, she knew more or less what she needed. She assembled the raw materials: a chain, a frame, a bicycle seat, some pedals. She got brake pads and wheels, cables and a derailleur. When she wasn't sure about something, she Googled it. Soon enough, she was ready to get started. She tinkered and ratcheted, nudged and adjusted.
At last, Xenobia stepped back from her work with a sigh of satisfaction. She had done it! There before her was a genuine bicycle, ready for a test ride. As soon as Xenobia hopped on, the problems became apparent. The seat post wasn't the right size for the tube, and it dropped all the way down to the frame. As she pedaled, she felt the chain slipping between gears. On the downhill, Xenobia realized there was a distinct wobble in the front wheel. Sure, the bike worked (kind of), but it didn't work well. She turned around and pedaled for home.
Here, Xenobia's story could go one of two ways. If she is like many beginning *ahem* bike mechanics, she will feel bad about herself and her bicycle. She will not allow anyone to look at it (even more experienced mechanics who could help her diagnose what is wrong with it). She will compare her first attempt with the fine-tuned bicycles that she has ridden all her life. If she can't hide the evidence and get away with it, she will slap on a few bells and handlebar streamers, polish up the reflectors, and present it to her cousin/boss/teacher as it is (along with either self-deprecating apologies, insecure bravado, or plain bitterness about having been asked to build the darn thing in the first place).
Or . . . Xenobia will hop off her first draft bicycle, take a few steps back, and think for a moment. She quietly congratulate herself for having made a bicycle that actually goes somewhere. Then she will make a list of the things that need work.
Note: Xenobia doesn't start with the bells and streamers. First, she has to go to the store for a new seat. She has a few more things that she wants to research online. She has to take the wheel off and make sure it isn't out of whack structurally. Yes, that's right, she might actually take the bike apart again in order to fix it. But this isn't a step backwards--she's doing it with a vision of the big picture in mind.
Every change gets her closer to her final goal: a bicycle that not only suffices but stands up to regular use. Her bicycle will not only take people places, it will be able to get them home again. This is what revision (actual revision, deep revision) can do for your writing.
Obviously, you should strive to be like Xenobia #2. A lot of people who are new to writing mistakenly think that successful writers produce excellent material right off the bat. That's not really true. Yes, you get better at first drafts the more times you go through the process, but sometimes even very experienced writers try something new (say, a cargo bike or a double-decker) and end up with some funny-looking, wobbly drafts. But they know what to do with them: step back, get the big picture, make a plan. Then get back in there!
The bells and streamers, baskets and rear-view mirrors are nice touches, and you do want to leave yourself time to put those on, but remember that there is a difference between editing (correcting sentence-level errors) and revision (reorganizing, rewriting, or re-conceiving large portions of the project).
Xenobia may never become a professional bike mechanic--though you never know--but even if this is a one-time project, she is going to be glad that she gave herself permission to take that first draft bicycle apart and get it into proper working order.
So, my writing friend, I hope you found something in this parable that encouraged you. Take up the pen, sit down at the keyboard, pick up your Dictaphone--and put together that first draft. If you get stuck halfway up a hill, give me a call, and I'll come pick you up.