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Robert's Rules of Writing #26: Don't Look Back

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Welcome back to my ongoing discussion of Robert's Rules of Writing! Today is a propitious day for me to continue these mini-commentaries, as tonight I start teaching my workshop with Grub Street. So let's get right to it.

"Don't Look Back." With this rule, Masello addresses the perfectionists who refuse to move forward with their first drafts until every little thing is correct. His advice: don't worry about it. The important thing to do when writing a first draft is to keep in mind that a first draft is not a final draft. It's much more important to get through the manuscript the first time than to keep going back and fixing it. Otherwise you might never get through the whole thing in the first place.

This is not the first time Masello has given such advice. In his previous book Writer Tells All, he relates the story of his grandmother's old Cadillac. It was beaten up and full of dings. but it could still get you from one place to another. And that's what he feels a first draft is like. It may be beaten up and amorphous, but at least it gets you from the beginning to the end. Once it's complete, then you can start to worry about fixing it up.

How do I feel about this? Well, not to trot out Polonius's proverb yet again ("To thine own self be true"), but it depends on what kind of writer you are. We've discussed this issue earlier. Some writers advise you not to think of a first draft as just a first draft, or else you'll be sloppy in your approach to it. Other writers say that a first draft mindset allows you to be freer when writing and reduces the anxiety of getting every little bit right.

I have to say that I fall mostly in the second camp, and I know this not just from writing. If you've been reading my blog regularly, you know that Nomi and I have been taking comic book art lessons. On the first day of our lessons, I was anxious and nervous about putting my pencil down on the paper. I "knew" that I had no artistic skills whatsoever, and I was afraid of even drawing that first line on my paper. But our teacher eased me into it, noting that all we were going to do was draw a whole bunch of ovals. Since then, I've managed to draw recognizable faces, and I no longer worry so much that the first line I draw will ruin everything.

As they say in Hollywood, we can always fix it in post.


A while back, I was writing about the most important step in my writing process, which is basically a mental banner, suspended over the computer with the words IT'S OKAY TO WRITE CRAP in big, neon letters.

I have to have that first draft down on paper, no matter how messy and ugly it may be, before I can see the whole picture and figure out how to fix it. Which often leads to paragraphs like:

Jig staggered back. He raised his sword, though his hands shook too much to use it effectively. "Grell? You ... you were young. Now you're old!" His nose wrinkled. "And you smell like rotting fruit."

Grell shrugged, then picked at the loose, age-spotted skin of her hands. "Author decided my character was too bland, and he's too lazy to go back and make the changes to the earlier chapters."


Sometimes these are my favorite bits in the whole first draft.
I have to admit that I'm now curious to know what happens to Jig and Grell. :-)
Me too. The agent sent them off back in December, and I know we have a nibble from at least one publisher...

Oh wait, you meant in the story? :-)


I tend to be a perfectionist, and it kills me on first draft; I need to constantly remind myself to keep going and not go back to rewrite every word. I think of it as "Just write, not just right."

I like that phrase.
With the Camelot book I broke one of my major rules for the first time in a couple of years: Don't rewrite your first draft chapters extensively before the book is finished; just make notes on what changes and then keep going.

I did it this time because I already know this book well enough to know that a lot of things spring up while I'm writing that I hadn't known about when I sat down at the computer, and more often than not these things change the direction of the novel. And I was right. But I'm back to the forward progress again with only a few days "lost", so I figure this one exception was worth it.
That's an exception I've applied as well. Although once I did in fact write a whole bunch of chapters that made no sense until I made the changes in the second draft to the earlier chapters. As a result I had a rather disjointed first draft, but it wasn't like I was going to show it to anyone.

December 2016

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