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Christian H

Interesting. I find that if you think your first draft will be crap, it will be.

That's not to say that if you think it isn't it won't be but, I think the key is to say and show what you wanted to and it may not be perfect but it won't be shitty.

Most drafts, first or otherwise that were bad didn't seem to know where they were going. I definitely think that writers should think about simple stories for their first few scripts.

I've also seen a lot of scripts that seemed beyond the storyteller's ability.

I think there should be a few "templates" for students. Like a family that loses a child - the writer makes up the rest. Or a story about a cop who has to decide if he should "be as bad as the bad guy."


That's such a good thing for me to force myself to know.

Because I hate writing shit.
But boy, do I do it.


love anne lammott on shitty first drafts. i pass that section of her book out to all my students on the first day.

but now that you've done "isn't it painful to write a first draft?" you need to do "isn't it a pleasure to have written a first draft?"

all my first drafts suck.

but it feels so good to have them out there. better to have something imperfect than to not have something perfect.


It's interesting how many people can do the same thing yet all approach it in a different way. For me, the first draft IS the outline. I can only write by starting with nothing and seeing where it goes. I can only know characters by discovering them as I write - scenes, dialogue etc.

Usually, it begins with a lot of rambling exposition as I try to see where I'm going and who walks into the scene or what my character(s) might do or think. Then something happens and I just start following to see where it all goes.

As Ray Bradbury says somewhere about how he writes: "I throw up on paper then clean it up." (Or something to that effect.)

Writers inevitably want everything nice and tidy and gussied up before anyone sees what they've done but, for me, a first draft is by definition crap. To use an old analogy, you would hardly expect to see David when they dug out the chunk of stone DaVinci eventually sculpted.

My outline is only revealed when I can go over the first draft and see what the story is.

karen from mentor

I don't outline for novels.
I sit down and listen until I can hear the character's voice and then let her unfold the story for me. It's amazing what turns up.

My story wasn't crap in my first draft, but I did go back in and take out 187 he/she/harry/bill/whoever saids.
I got the hang of dialog after I wrote THE END and started the editing process.

I'm kind of glad that I didn't know how the process is supposed to go when I started writing. I might have felt that I was doing it wrong and that may have hampered me from spreading my figurative writing wings and flying. (but at this point in my life probably not. I feel most days like an AMAZONIAN warrior princess or something)
This was a great post and made me laugh a piece of peanut butter toast onto my table.
So now I know not to eat while I read you either. What is it with me and funny men? They just keep turning up in odd places for me to enjoy. (sadly, none in my bedroom...sigh)
Karen :)

Eric C

My "zero" draft is usually tremendously horrible, shockingly so and even horrible by horrible standards. Knowing that, I can put them out relatively easy. Sitting down to rewrite the first draft is the trouble.


May I be Columbo a moment? One more thing ... Samuel R. Delany (who tends to be a bit egghead-ish in his essays) has what I think is a great observation about writing in an essay called 'Thickening the Plot.' He says of writing:

"I distrust the word 'plot' ... (it) refers to an effect a story produces in the reading ... Talking about plot, or theme, or setting to a beginning writer is like giving the last three years' movie reviews from the Sunday New York Times to a novice filmmaker. A camera manual ... would be more help. In short, a vocabulary that has grown from a discussion of effects is only of limited use in a discussion of causes."

He goes on to talk about the story revealing and developing before our eyes as we write, how each word, each choice, reveals more of the story, just as each word removed alters it.

When talking about something like an outline, it seems to me that is an attempt to determine effects before seeing what the causes are, which are revealed in the writing process - as it happens, so to speak. So the whole business of worrying about shitty first drafts is kind of ... I dunno. Maybe a worry less about writing than about how we might appear. ("What a shitty writer! Did you SEE that draft?")

(btw ... Delany's essays are in a collection titled - About writing: seven essays, four letters, and five interviews.' As mentioned, very eggheadish.)

E.C. Henry

"Writing the Romantic Comedy"

(page 228) "First drafts are for finding out what you're writing about."

(page 229) "First drafts are for finding out where your problems are."

Billy, I'm with ya on freeing yourself to write. I THINK that where your students are coming from is a place of trying to put it all together at once. I know for me that's true. There's so much advice as to how to do it, then when you write, you try to use all that advice at once and it slows things down.

When I write a scene, I'm thinking of a lot of things. More and more, it's how each character lives out each scene. What are their motivations? Why would they say such and such a thing? Plant for later? Revealing character?

But it's that stuff that boggs the flow down. I understand that. Writing involes a lot of different disciples: creating something fresh that no one's seen before, plotting, creating characters, shaping scenes to perform functions, pacing, a bit of poetry thown in. Ballancing the varrious disciplines it takes to write takes, well, just that: disipline.

I think that's the heart message of this post; a writer has to discipline him/herself when writing that first draft. Just write it and not get overly editorial.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Rachel Hauck

I have to disagree with Christian H. I've wanted my first drafts to be great and all my agony and stress comes from the fact it's not.

It's like a painting, or drafting a house plan, or cooking a meal, the ingredients are there but they have to be worked and changed, modified.

Writers have to discipline themselves to get the first draft done so they have something to work with and change and develop.

A perfect first draft is like saying a gourmet meal just needs the vegetables chopped up, the meat thawed and the sauces stirred.

Great post, Billy.



I've been spinning my wheels for two months. This post is just what I needed to read. Thanks.

And without sounding like a prick I did want to say that it was Michelangelo who sculpted The David, not Da Vinci.

arizona bankruptcy attorney

I once attended a screenwriting seminar and the speaker said "everyone's first script is bad". It's probably true.

Frank  Conniff

It's been said that news reporting is the first draft of history. If you've read or watched the way the mainstream media has covered the news in the last decade or so, there is no doubt that we've all been living inside one of the shittiest first drafts ever written.


Oops. Yes, Michelangelo. I think I was mixed up because Da Vinci was over one night, drunk, and shouting, "It was my idea! He stole it!"


great post


Billy, you’re in a “process” mind these recent posts. Re your last quotee, Chayefsky: seems to me if you are not by nature “writing when you’re not,” then you’re going to need to lean heavily on that good day’s work rather than the art; and if you do write when you’re not – well, at some point, and at many, you’ve got to write when you are. So that good day’s work is once again vital – as you say in “The Practice.” As for your first quotee, the Hem, I read almost a lifetime ago, probably in A Moveable Feast, of his practice to quit for the day, whenever he could, not when stuck, but when he knew where he was going. WWYN (writing when you’re not) helps with the problems, but it also takes a deep whiff of what’s well percolating and makes the next day’s start a lot more fun. Has stood me in good stead.

Christian H

Well, Rachel, I'd have to ask what makes your first draft bad?

Is the dialog dry? Does the story lose its theme? Are there continuity problems? is there no emotional impact? "Shitty" is a very subjective word.

Film making is about accomplishing a goal. The goal in this case is to linearly progress through a set of circumstances that you make up and strive to make real and realistic.

People second-guessing - I mean giving notes - doesn't make it bad. I think that if you work hard on the story before actually writing each scene, it may not be perfect but after a few it should be far from crap.

Of course that's just my opinion.

David Lemon

I think that post was the best advice on screenwriting (along 'read as many scripts of films you love as you can;)I've ever read.

Thanks for taking the time to postit.


Christian: I've had that template idea, too -- funny notion. And I get where you're coming from, but I'm talking about something else: how the fears of not writing something great can inhibit writers from writing, period. I think you're taking the Lamott notion of "shitty drafts" a little too literally.

J: As do we all.

Beth: Yup. And yes (great minds think alike) I plan to do my next post on the pleasures of revising.

Bill: Makes sense to me.

Karen: Well, at least the draft didn't spring out perfect, Zeus-like, from your forehead (cutting is rewriting, as is removal of ad's). Glad to have made you laugh. Jelly next time?

Eric C: Exactly!

Bill: Would like to read the Delaney; this is intriguing stuff.
What I find is that too often, screenwriters (especially young ones) aren't willing to take the time to EXPLORE their material via a first draft. Novelists seem to have less resistance to this...

E.C. - That's a very astute comment, and I couldn't agree with you more.

Thanks, Rachel, and I love your food metaphor.

Ralph: Happy to be of service!

Arizona: 99% of the time, I'd say.

Frank: Oh Good Lord is this true, or: Don't get me started...

Bill: And then he pukes all over your carpet! I hate it when he comes by.

WC: Thank you sir.

AJA: Yes, I've been following his lead in this regard, for years (more people have been influenced by "Feast," I'll wager, than by any of his other books -- and have you heard [slowly we turn] that they're about to release an "unexpurgated version"?!) Leaving the day's work in the middle of a sentence is particularly effective.

David: You're so welcome!


I agree. I had an idea for a story six months ago(well a lot longer butI started writing it at that time) but in the middle, I've read a couple books and blogs that harped on OUTLINES. I stopped and tried to outline but had no clue how to write a proper one. Well to be honest, the mountainous prospect task of detailing every snip of action that happened in one hundred and twenty pages overwhelmed me.

I know the shorts I've written were all taken from real situations so essentially they wrote themselves. Now I compartmentalize each piece to be 10-15 minutes before putting all together as the first draft. Redraft after.


Well put.

Christian H

Billy, that's what I'm trying to understand as "shitty" is such a subjective word.

The template thing I think is good because it would let students see how ideas diverge even from the same point.

I guess I just do so much work outside of Final Draft that when I finally type Fade In I have gone through probably three stories.

Final Draft I only use for slug lines and dialog.

I do agree that this is intimidating and just starting is hard but I comfort myself in the actual accomplishment.

But I don't delude myself to think that a lot of work done in terms of research, personality studies, etc. isn't necessary.

Anyway, here's hoping my first drafts teach me how to make better first drafts. Coming here definitely helps.


Christian, no offence, but I think your template idea is a horrible one.
Templates does nothing but causing the churning out of cliche stories that everyone has seen.
When I searched for story crafting techniques I found the hero's journey template. I tried that and found it messed up my story.
What needs to be taught are techniques like 'misdirection', 'suspence', 'hints and reveals', 'Mirrors','Reversals' and pacing etc. If those are taught instead by this section of the script 'all is lost' I gaurantee that we will see better stories.

It took six frustrating months of trying to figure out how to tell the story excellently that I realized that the templates the 'super gurus' advocate are the reason we see all the templated drivel onscreen.

I can tell you that great films like 'Ordinary people' and books like 'to kill a mockingbird' used real storycrafting techniques.

karen from mentor

You haven't been to visit me in ages.(well ok, a week)
And I have something really funny up. *sigh* then pouts some...

Karen :)

Laura Reyna

I'm a screenwriter.

Like a lot of other writers i've struggled with perfectionism, procrastination, resistance, etc... over the yrs.

Apologies to Hemingway, Lamott, & Billy. I've tried & tried & tried... I just can't do this "shitty 1st draft" thing.

I've given up & have switched to the "slow, organized & deliberate" thing. I think about my story for a long time, I write a bunch of notes, I re-write my notes, I outline, I re-write my outline, I keep adding ideas as I go.

My outline is the way I "discover" my story, as opposed to writing a disorganized 1st draft.

I keep adding ideas, action lines & dialogue until I have a complete draft. I do minimal re-writing.

I *get* that accepting a bad 1st draft is supposed to break down a writer's resistance, it just never worked for me.

I figure as long as I get a script finished, it's okay that I didn't go about it exactly like what is recommended.


JamminGirl: That section-by-section method sounds really cool and effective.

Desiree: Thenkew.

Christian: Best of luck with your current six (or is it more by now?).

Karen: It's been quite a week (felt like two), but yes: that post of yours is funny. Reads like screenplay fodder to me...

Laura: Whatever works! (Hey, that sounds like a viable film title.)

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