Writing Your Rough Draft: The Show Must Go On

Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman performin...
Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman performing the title song of The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many years ago, I attended a showing of The Phantom of the Opera. What does that have to do with writing motivation and your rough draft? Stick with me.

If you’ve ever seen the play, you’re familiar with that bit where the Phantom bellows out the final verse of “The Music of the Night” and reveals the female lead’s creepy-ass animated mannequin. During the performance I watched, the double was hidden beneath a sheet, which the actor had to yank away at the climactic moment. But just then, some yahoo’s cell phone rang out, the actor’s hand slipped, and the sheet didn’t come off.

The actor did the only thing he could do. He tried again, and this time the sheet came off. The moment wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough — it had to be.

Even though this anecdote is about performance art and not writing, it’s gone in my list of motivational stories for a specific reason: Screw-ups happen, but the show must go on. A writer’s rough draft is likely to be full of little problems: continuity errors, poor characterization, a plot that flatlines. An actor working live on a stage doesn’t have the luxury of just stopping when things get tough — writers, unfortunately, often do, unless they’re under a deadline.

If you’re going to maintain forward momentum and beat procrastination on your work, you’ve got to learn to work through the temptation to stop and get everything perfect.

This is something every beginning writer seems to struggle with. You want your first draft to be perfect, so you stop writing and go back to fix your mistakes. Forward momentum stalls while you try to perfect the writing you’ve done, instead of generating new words. Soon, your motivation starts to flag. You put the story away. You attend a writing workshop. You abandon the idea. You write a blog post about your writing problems instead of confronting them. You take up hang-gliding. Your rough draft languishes while you look up motivational quotes on the internet. You know, that sort of thing.

Been there. Done it. Fiction writing can be like a minefield of distractions.

So how do you keep your motivation strong and keep writing even when that rough draft seems like it’s actively mocking you?

  • Accept imperfection. You’re not a machine. No one’s first draft is perfect. Everyone quotes Hemingway for a reason. Realize you’re going to make mistakes and just keep writing. Remember: forward momentum.
  • Resist the temptation to edit. The first draft is for writing. The second and subsequent drafts are for editing and revising. Stick to your guns and just keep writing.
  • Don’t let your ego drag you down. Writers tend to be a fussy, neurotic bunch. We see imperfections in our work and we take it so damn personally. The quality of our writing suddenly becomes the quality of ourselves, and that first draft suddenly becomes some terrifying referendum on our personality. Don’t let it.
  • Remember that a first draft is just the beginning. It’s a common rookie mistake to hang everything on that rough draft as if it’s the ultimate goal. It’s not. You have a lot more work ahead of you. Sorry about that.

Mistakes happen. The show must go on. Keep your head down and keep writing.


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8 Replies to “Writing Your Rough Draft: The Show Must Go On”

  1. Daniel, thanks, I need that. Another most excellent, on target post, sir.

    I’m printing your sage words and taping them to my wall so that when these problems arise for me again (and let’s face it, they will) I can remind myself to keep going, keep writing, get out of my own way and just do it…or as Dory told us in Finding Nemo: just keep swimming!

    Thanks for writing this, and for writing it so darn well.

  2. Yes! This is so true. First drafts can be very difficult, especially when they don’t quite come out as the masterpiece we imagined before setting out to write and the temptation to go out and fix things is certainly there, but as you said, the best thing we can do is keep the momentum and push forward, even (and especially) when the writing comes out less than perfect.

  3. It’s a darned good thing I only write short little blog posts! I’m such a terrible abuser of “edit as you go” that if I tried to write anything longer, it would never get done. 😀

  4. Found this randomly today and it was exactly the pep talk I needed. Thanks!

  5. Damn it! Now I don’t have an excuse! XD

    But thanks anyway, because this is something I was trying to tell myself but I shot it down because, well, it’s me!

    So now I guess it’s time to go finish those novels of mine….


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