First Draft Fiction

First draft fiction is a concept based on one of Robert Heinlein’s rules for writing. It is an idea that you do not go through extensive drafts, edits, unless you’re being paid to. First draft fiction is then a process you can learn. You write it right the first time.

Robert Heinlein’s full rules for professional writers, published in 1947, are as follows.

  1. You must write.

  2. You must finish what you start.

  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.

  4. You must put it on the market

  5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

“They don’t pay you to edit.”

Most people would probably agree with all of the rules except for the 3rd.

If you can write the way you want to perfectly the first time, then you may not need to edit, as a laborious process, at all.

But most people make mistakes. Flaws manuscripts. With too many words. Or too few.

And seeking perfection can be a bad thing if you wish to follow the other rules. The fear of failure prevents many people from even trying. And if you can permit yourself to write poorly without fear or self-judgment, you can get the words flowing and get to writing great work.

Even Heinlein admitted later on that he edited his work before sending it out. Of course, he edited to remove simple mistakes, at the very least. And the people he sent his work to for publication further refined his work.

But is there truth, value in that third rule as written in today’s world?

Yes, certainly.

Writing with flaws is still better than writing that doesn’t happen.

If you’re playing a numbers game with your writing. If you’re completely fearless, and focused on just writing the most compelling fiction you can without worry of being perfect, then this rule can be great to follow.

Consider the web novel publishing format.

There are authors in China who are millionaires publishing a long chapter a day of a continuous story they’ve been working on for years. They made their money on that daily grind. Their stories were not planned out all in advance. They didn’t sit on the draft for a year to return later and completely rewrite. They started a story that many began to love and kept it going and going day by day. Full of mistakes. Often with continuity errors. But still published, still making money, still being entertainment for the masses.

Here, the style of publishing is like busking. A live performance. Not a recording that has been done repeatedly until it was done perfectly.

It is raw.

It is real.

It fits the format of serial fiction perfectly.

And if you can get it to work for you, then great.

But most people need to edit as part of their process. They need the time to simmer. Mostly because they are afraid, and they know in time they can think of something better.

For the people who go 3 every day, they can still go back and make fixes, it’s not that big of a deal, really.

There are many people who feel offended to be reading something raw and unedited.

Yet they will enjoy a live performance by a busker, maybe even throw them some money.

But they won’t do it for authors. Well, at least some people do!

Some people still enjoy the raw work even if it’s not perfectly crafted in the raw state. They are the first to consume the work and they love it.

And again, nothing says you can’t go back and edit something that was published as a live performance.

That’s what abridged versions of old books are. Editors, who rarely were the original authors, went through the books and cut out sections which are not essential to the core story. The core story may be better for it. Even vastly so. Just as a song recorded in a studio may be obviously superior than something played on the street.

Editing is fine. I do it. Fixing obvious problems is important. If you’re doing things digitally, you can crowd source corrections if you’re willing to look like an idiot to many of your readers who catch a mistake but never tell you.

But don’t sit on something for years. I’ve done that too. It’s a waste. Don’t revise something a dozen times. I’ve done that too. Also a waste.

Don’t try to get perfect sentences. Get the words out. Make them good enough. Send to an editor to refine further if you want to. Consider further edits and rewrites only if it really, really needs it. Otherwise, your goal should be like the rules: to write and publish. Especially when you’re a young writer. You’ll get more finishing what you start, and publishing a lot, than obsessing over perfectly one single idea and never even publishing it.

Seeking perfection through repeated polishing is never really possible, so don’t even think you can do that. Every single masterpiece has flaws. You’ll get more and more diminishing returns the more you try to refine. And as you refine, you may smooth away too much of raw goodness.

That said, it is very true that you can often make a better whole by what you subtract. In many of my game projects, that has been true. Cutting many big features made the game better as a whole. The same is true for words, but again it can be something which comes later in the process — in an abridged edition. You’ll still always have readers who miss those ugly, seemingly useless bits you cut, even if you know overall the cut makes something better. So don’t feel like you need to cut too early either. All consumption is subjective and your uncut work may be someone’s favorite work ever.

Make your work as great as it can be within reason, then get it out there as best you can. Do it!