Rules for writing a rough draft

“Mom,” said Kiddo#1, “what are the rules for writing a rough draft?”

He asked this, presumably, because he needs to write the rough draft of that horrible science fair project about which he’s already wound tighter than my violin’s E string.

(For those who are wondering, he has continued to document the fact that none of the original seeds grew; but he also initiated a Phase II in which he tried to kill living plants by using the same watering methods, and he’s managed to kill most of them except for the control group. Success!)

I replied to the Kiddo, “There’s only one rule for writing a rough draft. It has to stink.”

Since he’s worried his teacher is going to get on his case about this, I told him to tell his teacher I would put it in writing, so here we have it: as a semi-professional, I’m going on record as saying your first draft is supposed to be awful.

Repeat after me: It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be written.

The purpose — the only purpose — of a first draft is to lead to a second draft. It does not need to be fit for viewing by human eyes. Your sins in the first draft are between you and God Almighty. (And in my case, my guardian angel, whom I probably owe a case of hard liquor after some of my own early terrible drafts.)

This schooling idea of turning in a rough draft is only going to create in a children an inhibition against turning out a terrible draft so they can get past that in order to create a good draft.

90% of writing is rewriting. Very few of us have the Mozartian ability to spew out a perfect draft on the first shot.

Therefore, Ms. Teacher Of My Son, as a semi-professional, I give you my word on it: the first draft is supposed to be awful. All it needs to do is exist in order to be corrected.

There’s no need to constipate the students’ writing process by installing an internal editor when they’re just getting their disorganized thoughts out into print for the first time. Let the editing happen later, on the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth etc drafts. For right now, it doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be written.


  1. Ivy

    The first draft of anything is shit.
    – Ernest Hemingway

  2. cricketB

    Does she mean a “draft” or “outline”? Does she give examples or a marking scheme?

    Outlines are much easier for techies. It’s easy to count the number of points under each heading. Also, it’s very frustrating to think of a point, then punctuate it, then shift back to the experiment. Then we have the beautifully, labouriously perfected paragraph that has to be tossed because you need to squeeze in more points.

    So, yeah, from an English perspective, the first thing on paper sucks. From a project perspective, it’s chock full of good stuff.

  3. WLT

    Now, whenever I was instructed to turn in a rough draft, it was never my absolute first draft. Usually my second or third. No-one should have to see that first draft. 🙂

    I still vividly remember my 7th grade English teacher describing the writing process to us. She brought in a legal pad of something she was working on, and I was amazed. She had words crossed out and new ones written in the margins. Sentences had been circled and had arrows pointing to where they really belonged. It was a wreck. “This”, she said, “is what a rough draft looks like. It will need correction.”

    Thank you, Ms. Minnehan, for teaching me (a true perfectionist) that my writing didn’t have to be perfect right out of my head.

    1. cricketB

      Mom ran a typing business back in the 1980’s with one of the first word processors. It took up the entire desk, cost $15k, and didn’t have spell-check.

      She specialized in clients other typists (including their own secretaries) wouldn’t touch. Some of them gave her stuff that looked like Ms. M’s rough draft. Thanks to the word processor, she was able follow the reorganizing instructions as she went. They were delighted with how little it cost to make changes once they read the first typed version.

      Then we had the grade 12 English teacher who insisted we take lecture notes in full sentence form, “because we (in advanced Senior English) needed practice writing sentences.” I retaliated by taking them in shorthand.

  4. R. L. Copple

    I think I’ve only had one flash fiction come out near perfect…maybe two, on the first draft. But even that one I made a major change to it, deciding to go from first person to third.

    But as far as the story went, no real changes.

    Most of mine do require a few rewrites, however. 🙂

  5. whiskers09092006

    I do have the Mozartian ability to spew out a perfect draft on the first shot. However, it’s never my BEST work, and it usually does get tweaked and rewritten, despite being perfect for the assignment and getting consistent A grades. This can lead me to one of two conclusion: 1. I’m just that good, (well, maybe, but not likely), or 2. I really don’t want to see the other work that students are turning in to my professors. 😉

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