Some days I think writers are the most anxiety-ridden bunch of people out there. And we seem to do everything in our capacity to remain that way. In some ways, it’s astounding to watch, but in others, well, it makes me a bit sad. And trust me, I’m no exception. I doubt I’ll ever stop, but I think I’d like to learn to be less harsh. The world out there, including the nature of the publishing business, is more than willing to be hard on us. Maybe we need to give ourselves a bit more understanding.
This post is about judging, but not other people. It’s about the way we judge ourselves. No, it’s not quite the same as my post about doing writing right. I’m talking about judging ourselves internally, and our work. Yes, I know, we’re trying to make our work the best it can be, but there’s a point where it becomes self abuse and makes us miserable. I’m learning that the key to editing is staying on the right side of that line. I should point out here that I’m bad at that. You don’t even want to see the little “love notes” I’ve left myself on first drafts. A few were definitely offensive. I’m working on this.
But editing aside, I’ve seen people do that when they’re writing the first draft, the harsh self-judgement I mentioned. The thing about running all the sprints I’ve been doing lately is that I’ve met a number of new people and seen a lot of comments from them about their writing in process. Often, it’s in a negative light, or at least not positive.
I see people judging the story while they’re still exploring it and getting it all down. They say they wrote X words, but that those words suck, or that the story sucks, or their characters suck. There are variations on these. I’ve seen plenty. But in the end, they come down to the same thing. What I’m in the middle of writing sucks.
I’m going to come right out and remind you of something you probably already know. When you finish writing that first draft, you’re generally supposed to stick it in a drawer (or folder on your computer, for the modern age) and not look at it for a while. That length of time varies based on what works for you, but you need to walk away for a while in order to gain perspective. Yes, there are some people who actually start editing the moment they finish the draft. I’ve met few who that works well for though.
Now, I hope you see where I’m going with this, but in case you don’t, I’ll ask you the question. If you need time after writing a draft to gain the needed perspective, why would you think you have it while you’re writing it? Trust me, you don’t. I doubt anyone ever does, and I’m definitely including me in the don’t-have-it list.
In recent weeks, I’ve seen a friend on Twitter come back to a manuscript she finished a while ago. When she was writing the last several chapters, I vividly remember her insisting that it was a heap of garbage (not her words, as I think hers were less polite). I didn’t believe it at the time, partly because I know her. After a while away, she reread the manuscript that resulted and found it wasn’t as bad as she thought. I know this because she tweeted this feeling. I was jumping for joy when I read it.
I’m glad she finished the manuscript, and that she’s feeling better about it. I’ve seen others go through the same thing many times. However, watching this has led me to wonder how many of us might enjoy writing a little more (and maybe even get more of it done) if we would stop judging the book before it’s written. We might feel free enough to just get it down and see what’s there later, if we’d focus on the one important aspect, that first part.
I want everyone to think about this, about what you expect from your first drafts and whether those expectations are reasonable. Also, whether those expectations are getting in your way. If you can get a handle on this, you might be better able to remember while drafting what it is you love about writing. It’ll keep you going.
I’m not saying you don’t try to make the first draft decent. I’m saying that we need to remember what the purpose of the first draft is. It’s not like it’s the only one you’ll ever do for that manuscript. Remember that you’re among the trees when you’re writing the first draft. You can’t see the forest, and you won’t until you come out the other side. Do yourself a favor and just keep walking, even if you think you’re lost and will never get out. You will and the result of the journey might just pleasantly surprise you. Trust me.