Writing Tips

The Perfectionist’s Guide to the First Draft

We all know that perfection is an illusion. But this doesn’t change the fact that, for a lot of people, expecting perfection is the norm. As writers (though in general, too), this can be dangerous. And paralysing. Because we think that whatever we write needs to be perfect almost as soon as we write it. Knowing that it won’t be – and facing that it will never be – can keep us from even making an attempt. But it shouldn’t. Perfection isn’t the standard we should be aspiring to. Rather, we should be aiming for our best (which is enough). But because I know it’s easier said than done, this post provides my three top tips to help you ignore the desire for perfection and help you craft your first draft.

At the very least.

Limit your planning

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, you’ll be starting your first draft with some kind of plan in mind. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll want this plan to be perfect. Unfortunately, it can’t be. Your first draft is always going to be messy because your characters will surprise you. And sometimes, the journey you’ve set out for them won’t be what they want for their story. (I’m hoping you understand this, and don’t think I’m crazy for speaking about fictional characters this way!)

So, limit your planning. Tell yourself that you’ll only write a one-page guideline, or that you’ll only spend one day planning. By doing this, you’ll be keeping your perfectionism in check. You won’t waste time on plans that might not pan out, or developing characters that might not make the cut. The sooner you have what you want to write in mind, the sooner you’ll be able to start writing. And the sooner that first draft will be done.

Don’t waste time on details

When I’m writing the first draft of a book, I’ll set a timer for twenty minutes. In that twenty minutes, I’ll only write – no emails, no social media, no random admin tasks (it happens). This helps me to keep focus, and push myself for a limited amount of time before going back to checking Twitter or Facebook. But still, sometimes, I get distracted. Because I tell myself that I have to get the details right, so I end up on the internet, looking up an outfit or setting to better (or, in my perfectionist mind, to perfectly) describe it.

Which, of course, wastes time.

Not only because I’m wasting of my twenty minutes to look up a detail I can do at a later stage, but because of the rabbit hole that is the internet. (Don’t look at me like that – I know it’s happened to you, too.) Before I know it, my timer beeps, and I realise I’ve wasted my opportunity to focus and make up my word count for the day. Now, to avoid that, I’ll make a note of what I want to look up for later. I’ll mark a word I’m unsure of or a place I want to describe with an asterisk, or highlight it, and then, when I edit my first draft, I’ll know what I want to perfect – oops, improve on – later 😉

Stop yourself from reading what you’ve written

I know that this is a tough piece of advice. Especially when you’re writing part time, and aren’t able to write every day. But this is an important tip for perfectionists, because if you spot something you don’t like or that’s incorrect, you’re going to want to change it. And we all know that’s the start of a vicious cycle of rewriting that hinders progress.

So, if you can, don’t read what you’ve written before. Scan over it to remind yourself of where your story is at, and start writing from there. If you can’t just scan and must read, then limit your reading to one paragraph or, at the most, to one page. And don’t change anything. If you pick up on something you don’t like, highlight it or make a note to come back later. After you’ve finished your first draft. Because you’re going to end up changing things anyway, so you might as well wait until you have a full first draft before you do.

Do you have any tips for perfectionists writing their first drafts? How do you overcome your own perfectionism? Share in the comments, or on Facebook or Twitter!

4 thoughts on “The Perfectionist’s Guide to the First Draft

  1. What a great post! It has everything I’ve been grappling with writing my first draft. I’m a perfectionist and that’s the reason why it’s taken so long to finally decide now’s the time to write my novel. I came up with loads of reasons why I couldn’t do it ‘cos everything had to be figured out. Through trial and error I’m realising now that I can’t expect my first attempt to be a masterpiece or even compare it to the work of published authors. It’s so raw right now and far from finished but every time I look at how far I’ve come, I’m so glad I never gave up.
    You work so hard Therese and it shows. A real inspiration to me ❤?

    1. Wow, Sumi, thank you so much for your kind words! <3 And for reading! I always hope that these posts help other writers know that they're not alone because honestly, what you're feeling now doesn't only happen with your first book. I'm so happy for you, and cheering you on. Can't wait to read your book when it's done!

  2. Powering through and getting that first draft on paper is the hardest work! I agree that just moving forward and changing things later is a good idea. I like the idea of leaving research for details until later. I just might give it a try! Thanks for the post. 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading it, Patricia! I’m happy it might be helpful to you. Trying to power through now myself…wish me luck!