Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Think of Drafts as Rehearsals

stage rehearsalWriting a first draft can be scary. Even though we’ve all been told that first drafts are supposed to be shitty, it’s tough to shake off the pressure of feeling like you have to get it right the first time.

But, what if you thought of your initial drafts as rehearsals?

I heard this brilliant piece of advice recently (I think it was a side comment from one of the co-hosts of the excellent Writing Excuses podcast), and it put draft writing in a whole new light for me.  Thinking of each draft as a successively more polished performance not only takes the pressure off that first draft (Who would expect a drama company to be perfect at their first rehearsal?), it also helps illustrate why having multiple drafts of a story is not a bad thing.

The initial rehearsals for any kind of performance are a hot mess. The costumes and sets aren’t designed (never mind made), the actors are still learning their lines (and how to work well with each other), and all the technical details (lights, sound, etc.) are only rough ideas. In short, you’ve got a bunch of people who want to tell a great story, but they just aren’t ready yet.

But, as rehearsals continue, the pieces begin to fall into place as the cast and crew find their groove. With each rehearsal, additional elements of the story are layered onto that initial intention to tell a great story – sets and lighting, costumes and makeup, and – more importantly – the actors’ performances. The actors start to really understand and inhabit their characters, and are therefore better equipped to bring them to life. As they go over the lines and stage direction of each scene over and over again, they discover the nuances they can exploit to make the final, live performance incredible.

With writing, your initial drafts can feel a little clunky and awkward. They are like those actors reading the lines for the first time. Like rehearsals without full sets or costumes, your initial drafts may seem like they aren’t fully formed. Details are missing. That’s okay. You can fill in more of the gaps each time you revise and redraft. And –  just like in a play – sometimes you might need to change the story a little or recast someone. It’s all part of the process.

A related but simpler way to think about this idea is to consider the stories you already tell over and over. You know – those family yarns that you pull out each holiday to embarrass the relatives. How many times have you told those same stories, and how have they changed (and improved) with the multiple tellings? Over time, you have learned which bits to focus on and which bits to leave out. You’ve found the perfect words, tempo, and delivery style to make the story the best it can be. You have, in essence, been rehearsing these stories over and over.

So, go ahead – fumble through your first draft like you’re an actor just trying to figure out where to stand on the stage. Don’t worry about it. Things may look a mess now, but by the time the curtain goes up on opening night, you’re going to have this story down like nobody’s business, and you’re going to earn a standing ovation from your readers.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
Photo Credit: william couch via Compfight cc

32 thoughts on “Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Think of Drafts as Rehearsals

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I keep struggling with getting my stories on paper, because of the pressure I put on myself to get it right the first time (even though I know that’s impossible). I am going to try telling my brains it’s a rehearsal and see if they fall for it 😉

    • Tricking your brain is a challenge, but if you find something that works, it can make all the difference.
      Good luck with this one & here’s to getting rid of the pressure!

    • I would definitely say to let those words flow out of you. No matter how they come out, just get them out. You will be amazed at how words and stories flow as you write but the most important thing is to do exactly that, write. Let it out no matter what comes of it. There is no pressure on your first draft. After all, it is yours and no one else’s. You can do what you wish with it. The magic of writing is not in the planning but it’s having the ability to let the imagination change that plan. Good luck! 🙂

      • Thank you! 🙂 For a perfectionist like myself, one who also loves planning, it’s difficult to let go. But I will definitely not give up! I’m going to try what you wrote and tell my brains it’s all a rehearsal. Thanks so much again!

    • I’m guilty of the same “perfection urges.” It’s tough.
      I’m always looking for new ways to get myself to just “go out there and get started,” and I’m hoping this rehearsal idea will be a help. We’ll see!

      Good luck to you!

    • Right? You’re almost supposed to screw up rehearsals. It’s all part of the process. Not scary at all … in fact, many “mistakes” turn out to be helpful developments, right?

      TKS for coming by. 🙂

      • Yes, I used to always tell my choir, “Sing it like you know it,” so that I could hear the mistakes and work to move things along toward a great performance. 🙂

  2. It is really hard to keep the tension down while writing the first draft. It sometimes discourages me from writing anymore just because I don’t like what I’m writing. And that I’m writing in the middle of my sleeping bursts, so nothing looks right to me. 0_o Nice post.

    • Glad you liked the post. Thanks for saying so.

      It is tough to go easy on ourselves, but it’s worth the effort, I think to find ways to release some of that pressure. I hope this idea helps you!

  3. First drafts are great. You print them out, crumple them up and use them to light a fire that warms your thoughts and toes. Then you’ll be ready to write again.

    I’ll try to post a revised version of this comment later.

    • HA! That’s a PERFECT use for first drafts … except, I no longer have a fire place, so that might cause a bit of a problem. 😉

  4. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Think of Drafts as Rehearsals | ME, Myself and I

  5. This is great! As an actor myself, I can say that this is almost entirely true. I was in one play where we actually didn’t even pull everything together until opening night. Even then, we were still sewing costumes back stage. We also went through four Lysanders and Puck got a concussion… I suppose the only difference between rehearsals and drafts is the fact that in theatre at least you have someone to hold you accountable. Everyone has a part to do. But as a writer, you’re the costume designer, director, tech crew, stage managers, AND actors…not to mention everything else that goes into a show.

    • As the writer we are, quite literally, the entire cast and crew + the director and producer. It’s a tall order, but talk about having complete creative control! 😉

  6. Thanks for the timely advice – I just realised the holiday season will be a great opportunity to finally do a first draft of something I’ve been dawdling about for months. Feels like your post injected a dose of courage!

  7. Hi Jamie! This is sound advice and good to hear as I have just finished the first draft of my debut psychological thriller novel. I started back in February and finished the first draft just before Christmas. The feeling of finishing that first draft is like no other. I must admit, a lump appeared in my throat as I wrote the last few lines. January sees the start of the editing process and I can’t wait to polish my story. Thank you as always for a great post! Mark

  8. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Think of Drafts as Rehearsals | Slattery's Art of Horror Magazine

  9. As an actress, I can’t believe I never thought of it like this. One more thing from an actress’s (actress’?) point of view: Sometimes even the final performance isn’t perfect. My first show – a one act at school. No costumes or clothing was talked about. I was reading the script backstage between my speaking parts, and right up until the performance. Forgot the *funniest* line of the whole show. But it was still great! My friends were all there. I went out with some other drama kids after for fries.

    So next time you’re looking over your manuscript for the gazillionth time, picking out little things that you know only you, the author would notice, just accept it. Many writers don’t know when to finally “be done with it,” but sometimes you just have to accept it.

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