How To Break Up With Your First Draft

It’s time to be honest with yourself: you’re staying with your first draft because you’re not sure you can do better. You’re afraid of letting go. You’re comfortable.

Look, I get it. There’s nothing worse than a break up. Everything you know and rely on crumbles, and you’re faced with an overwhelming, depressing unknown. At first, you don’t even have it in you to go out and try to meet someone new. You just feel lost. There's a lot of ice cream.

Eventually, after weeks of talking to your cat about the Nicholas Sparks novels you've been reading, you pick yourself up, put on a snazzy outfit, and go out. It feels amazing. There are so many fresh, new faces out there, and they all want to buy you a drink. You wonder why you were so attached to your ex in the first place. You had all of this possibility in front of you all along!

There is no denying that the first draft is crucial. Remember, however, that it can often be made up of all the things you need to get out of your system to really begin your story.

I’m here to remind you that you can always, in fact, do better.

Actually, forget “better.” You can do it differently. As writers, we should strive to grow and develop with each thing we write. The only way to do this is to get your story out the way you’d usually tell it, and then muster up the courage to tear it apart and make it exceptional. I’m sure it felt great writing your first draft, and even better when you got to the end. For a moment there, it even felt complete. But really, it’s only the beginning. Your ex might have been a masterful artist, but just around the corner is another masterful artist who also cooks, saved an adorable, older dog from the local shelter, and is communicative enough to say the nice things he's thinking. That person around the corner is your second draft. How sad would it be if you never made that turn to meet him?

You want to tell the best story possible, and if you're willing to do the work, you can get there. Here are three steps you can take to successfully call it off with your first draft and to get to the story you were always meant to write.

1. Write it all

In order to soften the blow of calling it quits with draft one, be sure to write fearlessly. Throw every idea you have out onto the page and worry about whether or not it’s necessary later. The more you put down, the better. Not all of it has to, or should, end up in the final draft. Does your dream girl have any of the bad qualities of the last person who broke your heart? I hope not! Write the first draft as if you're out for a spontaneous night with a devastatingly handsome man you met abroad. Run wild, take chances, and don't even consider the possibility that you're making the wrong choice. Just go for it.

2. Give yourself time and distance

One of the most important things you can do after a break up is to give yourself time and distance to process. If you jump right into another person’s arms, most likely this person will end up being what you call a “rebound” and have no lasting power in your life.

Likewise, if you try to write your second draft immediately after completing your first, it’s probably going to be a mess. You’ll have a harder time parting with the little things you loved when you first started writing. The words might be pretty, but they don’t necessarily serve the story you are trying to tell. With a little bit of distance, you'll be able to approach your work with new eyes and a fresh perspective. Let the clouds separate. You won't have a problem parting with your little darlings if you give yourself enough time to realize they weren't as darling as you thought.

3. Start with a blank slate

Now that you’ve given yourself much needed distance, I’m going to ask you to do something terrifying: start your second draft with a completely new notebook or document. Don’t look at your first draft. I mean it! The things that really resonate with you from your first draft will find themselves coming up again naturally in draft two, but ideally you'll end up with something fresh and distinct. Don’t worry, your first draft is just a few clicks or page turns away. Fight the urge to look at it again until you’ve finished the second draft. Honestly, this step still freaks me out every time, but if you can manage it, the payoff is having more material to work with when you're ready for draft three. 

Even if you have a go-to writing space, I find it helpful to separate from that place to seal the moving-on-to-draft-two deal. Check out a new coffee shop, run off on a weekend retreat to some weird cabin in the woods, or just pick a different corner of your apartment to set up shop. New draft, different writing space, better story.

Most importantly, don't forget that you’re getting better every day. Every new draft is a chance for you to write your best story yet. There is no denying that the first draft is crucial. You’d have nothing without it! Remember, however, that it can often be made up of all the things you need to get out of your system to really begin your story. Kind of like the guy with the weird glasses you dated in high school that you thought you'd be with forever. Strive to get your story to the level of that self aware man with a five year plan that you met on the eve of your 30th birthday.

He's worth the patience, dedication, and work, and so is your story.

Christine J. Schmidt

Column by Christine J. Schmidt

Christine J. Schmidt is a writer originally from New Jersey. After receiving her BFA in Dramatic Writing from SUNY Purchase, she worked at Seattle Repertory Theatre as their artistic literary intern. She recently left Brooklyn, where she was a bookseller and events host at WORD, to reside in Los Angeles. She has previously written for New York Theatre Review, and her plays have been read and produced at theaters in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Washington. Coffee is her favorite thing.

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Dennis's picture
Dennis from Los Angeles is reading Necroscope by Brian Lumley April 14, 2014 - 1:57pm

This was a very timely article for me, as I contemplate how to approach second drafts of my own material. As a writer, you think you know and subscribe to these lessons already, but there's an inherent instinct we have to believe our first draft is infallible. So it's good to be reminded of this every now and then.

Sanbai's picture
Sanbai from the Midwest is reading The War of Art April 14, 2014 - 7:47pm


Wow, how did Litreactor get a bot?

WilliamGrit's picture
WilliamGrit April 14, 2014 - 8:03pm



James Storie's picture
James Storie from Alabama is reading The Fireman April 15, 2014 - 2:44am

Oh my god Christine! I needed this article so bad. I have been sitting on a first draft for many months now and have been terrified to work on it or really work on anything else for that matter. The piece I have is my first completed piece of work and it is just so scary to look at it and think about doing a second draft and everything. Thank you so much for this article. 

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago April 15, 2014 - 5:12am

Thanks for the wonderful article. I finished a first draft a year ago nd then broke up with it. Giving myself some space from it has helped me put things in perspective and continue to develop my skills creating new characters for new stories. 


Grant Williams's picture
Grant Williams from Wichita, KS is reading Friday April 15, 2014 - 7:55am

I've never even considered #3, but now the the thought intrigues me.  Looks like I might have to dip back into the well of abandoned stories.  

Shari Green's picture
Shari Green April 15, 2014 - 11:56am

This is exactly what I needed to read today! Thanks! I'm about to do a complete rewrite on an old manuscript and was debating whether it would help or hinder to read the last draft before I start... Not reading. Blank slate it is! Eep.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 15, 2014 - 3:33pm

Article is very much appreciated. I'll hopefully be editing my contemporary short story with some science fiction elements today.

I generally try to give myself a month away, though I think after two months I might be ready to take a little at it.

Not sure I'd recommend seven years distance though.

Christine J. Schmidt's picture
Christine J. Schmidt from Los Angeles, CA April 15, 2014 - 11:53pm

A couple of months away is a solid amont of time. It's great fun to read something you've written after taking a break from it -- it almost seems like it was written by another person.

I'm so glad the timing of this article was good for you guys! I have a second draft to work on myself...

Josika's picture
Josika April 22, 2014 - 6:11am

I'm not sure, if I understand #3. I cannot imagine myself to write it all from scratch just from my memory. I can rememeber my outline and basic plot points, but I'm not sure, if I will be able to reconstruct it all. I can imagine to read a whole text and after it, rewrite it all. 

Olivia Marcus's picture
Olivia Marcus from Chicago, IL is reading "Twenties Girl" by Sophie Kinsella June 14, 2014 - 2:35am

I started my first book when I was in middle school, and it was REALLY bad! It eventually mutated into the novel it is today (and it has a sequel), but I keep the classic one around for laughs. ;)