Why You Should Write a Sh*tty First Draft

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[This article was originally published on Talentville, an online community for screenwriters.]

by Angela Bourassa

These words should be a comfort to any writer, whether you’re starting your first short script or writing the final pages of your tenth screenplay. The first draft of ANYTHING is shit. Granted, your first drafts should get better as you become a more experienced writer and improve your story development process, but don’t ever think that you’ll get to a point where your first draft is good enough to be your final draft. It just doesn’t happen.

Why a Bad First Draft Isn’t Bad News

Now, you may be asking yourself, “Why is that comforting? That may be the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”

For those of us who dream of being struck by a brilliant idea and writing an award-winning script in a single day (a la Crash), sure, this news might come as a bit of a downer. But it should also be an immense relief.

Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Neither does your second draft or your third. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer if your ideas don’t come out clearly the first time around. It just means you’re human. Novelist James Michener once said, “I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters… You write that first draft really to see how it’s going to come out.”

Writing is rewriting, so a shitty first draft isn’t anything to be upset about. In fact, it’s something to celebrate. If you wrote a shitty first draft, congratulations! You did it! Now you can start the fascinating, torturous, exhilarating work of rewriting. You have the lump of clay in front of you. Now you get to mold it into the beautiful work of art you’ve envisioned. Without that first all important step of tossing down a lumpy mess of clay, you wouldn’t have anything to work with at all.

The Freedom to Write Terribly

Giving yourself permission to write a shitty first draft is incredibly freeing. When you get to a scene that just isn’t working or a joke you can’t quite land, don’t worry about it. Write in a note reminding yourself what you want to happen in that scene, and move onto the next one. Once you come to the end of the script, you may realize that you don’t need that scene anyway. Allowing yourself to write shit gives you the ability to push forward and write more. And the more you write, the sooner you’ll get to the next draft, and the better your writing will get.

Take this example from M. Night Shyamalan:

“It wasn’t until about the fifth draft of ‘Sixth Sense’ that I really began to figure it out. It was then that I realized he’s dead. It took me five more drafts to execute it right.”

Shyamalan had a great idea for a story about a boy who saw dead people and the man who tried to help him make sense of his abilities. And that’s an interesting story. It was probably a pretty good script by draft three or four. But Shyamalan kept pushing, and now Sixth Sense is a modern classic thanks to a twist Shyamalan didn’t even add until the fifth draft.

Strong Outlines are Still Mandatory

Of course, none of this means you should just start writing a script with a shitty outline or no outline at all. There are a few writers who are able to work this way, but for the vast majority of us, it’s a fool’s errand. You’ll end up getting stuck on page 20 when you realize the story in your head will only take you to page 30. Or alternatively, you’ll wind up with a 250 page script that has no cohesive story whatsoever.

Everyone outlines differently. Personally, I like to write a five to six page outline that gives me the bare bones, and then dive into the script. Other people like to write 40 page outlines that completely outline every aspect of the script. If that’s how you work best, power to you.

But no matter how thoroughly you outline, and no matter how good or bad your first draft ultimately feels, take comfort in the knowledge that you’ll know your characters and your story better at the end of the first draft, and that will catapult you into the second draft, and then the third and the fourth. Getting to a draft you feel good about calling your final draft could take anywhere from two to twenty rewrites, but if you’re willing to put in the hard work, there’s no reason that you can’t take a shitty first draft and turn it into a professional quality screenplay.

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