There’s an old writing rule that seems to supersede all rules, even Stephen King’s infamous quote on why he feels, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Yes, despite King’s aversion to adverbs, the biggest writing rule every writer constantly gets lectured about is that we should never be concerned about revising while we’re writing.
We’ve been made to feel that if we don’t write, write, write it blindly down and let it out that somehow the spur of creative vision would leave us. We’d never be able to snatch it back or not capitalize on our creative juices while the flow is iron-hot. After all, that’s what NaNoWriMo is all about, isn’t it? A reported 427,653 writers were documented to have participated in NaNoWriMo in 2021. There are pros and cons to powering through your first draft without looking back.
Pros & Cons To Blindly Writing That First Draft
Often writing a novel requires momentum regardless of writing level. Even Stephen King states that when you remove yourself from a manuscript for too long, it becomes harder to get back into it and find your groove again. Every writer dreads becoming so removed from our work that it might cause some type of mental paralysis. We might be stricken with severe writer’s block where nothing comes to us, and we’re staring at part-written and part-blank pages instead of a fully finished first draft. So many writers feel the urgency to never break this writing rule. No matter what, they must write first and edit second.
• You get your first draft knocked out quickly regardless of its condition. It’s the first draft, after all.
• All your initial ideas for this draft have been written down organically, and now you have something to revise and work with.
• If you’ve never written a book before, completing a long-form task such as this is a big accomplishment.
• In most cases, when writers blindly write, they write without limiting themselves to word count. It takes skill to focus on writing tightly and keeping within a specified word count. Certain genres, such as sci-fi and fantasy, can get away with large word counts. But usually, 100k should be your max aim for first-time debut authors.
• Chapter lengths are important, too, in terms of structure and flow. It’s doable to break chapter length rules but knowing when to wrap up each chapter is always advisable. Directionless writing can cause sloppy chapter lengths.
• Writing blindly can also lead to really, really rough first drafts. That’s why not all writers participate or believe in NaNoWriMo. Some writers who have participated in it have even had to completely throw away or rewrite almost the entire manuscript that was quickly and haphazardly crammed in the month of November.
• Extremely rough first drafts have more than line edit issues. They can also have many plot, character, flow, and pacing problems. When you’re participating in things like NaNoWriMo or trying to rush your first draft, unless you’re extremely seasoned and tend to write very clean first drafts, in most cases, the sheer number of issues during a rushed first draft can be so extensive that you wind up spending way more time editing it.
Why Stephen King’s Three-Month Completion Deadline Is Generally Unrealistic
You Google “Stephen King” and “three months,” and tons of how-to articles pop up. Everyone wants to tell you how to write a great novel in three months. Stephen King’s book on writing popularized the method of cranking out a first draft in three months, “no matter the length.” However, not everyone is in Stephen King’s shoes. Let’s not forget, that he is a seasoned author who has been writing professionally since 1964. That’s 58 years, and longer than some of us have been alive. He’s written 64 novels and over 200 short stories. This dude can crank out substantial word counts in three months because he’s very, very experienced. I’m not saying that you and I aren’t as skilled. I’m not saying there aren’t debut authors who can rival Stephen King. But with anything takes practice to master. Stephen King has been in this writing business far longer than many, many debuts and even some seasoned authors.
We can’t compare ourselves, nor should we try to keep up with his standards. Also, while Stephen King has kids, all of his kids are grown. He doesn’t have little children at home to attend to. While modern society has many more stay-at-home Dads, there are plenty more mothers and women that have to juggle their careers and take on the brunt of child-rearing. My husband is very hands-on but can’t physically breastfeed our son, who refuses to drink breast milk from the bottle. He also refuses to drink any formula. Stephen King doesn’t have the same situation that many struggling writers have. Especially for those of us that are writer moms. Most of us have day jobs, kids, families, and busy lives. Even so, some writers are simply faster with their first draft than others.
Established authors—that have the luxury to sit and do nothing but write full-time without needing an actual day job for supplementary income—are lucky. According to Stephen King, you’re not supposed to stop-and-start your manuscript over the length beyond three months. Easy for him to say. But when you’re a mother of two like I am, it is a requirement that I must learn how to jump in and jump out of my WIP as many times as required until it’s completed. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with a stop-and-start process, so as long as you get it done in such a way that you reduce the chances of heavy facelift editing. Facelift editing is the type that is often required when writers rush their first draft. There are serious line issues, heavy plot problems, the manuscript is way too long, the chapters are too long, the characters aren’t believable, the pacing is off etc., etc., etc.
What’s Wrong With Writing A Slower First Draft? Nothing.
One way you avoid facelift editing where you’re throwing out 60-90% of your book because most of it isn’t salvageable and requires extensive rewriters is to slow down. I’m not sure why writing super-fast became a “thing.” But, it honestly has become a thing. Who cares if you accomplished NaNoWriMo if you have to rewrite nearly the entire book? There’s very little reason to brag about writing quickly when there are many problems in a sloppy first draft. Wouldn’t you rather have a great first draft than one that is virtually unreadable? Writing slower might mean taking some time to develop your plot a bit. You don’t have to be a hard-core outliner, but having some type of beat sheet and general idea in terms of story structure and scenes you need to hit is never a bad thing. The mentality that you’re either a plotter or a pantser is close-minded and old-school thinking. In many cases, lots of writers are somewhere in between. It can be limiting to think in such black and white terms that your either one or the other.
I’ve written about why it’s wise to slow down during revisions. But, it’s even more important to consider slowing down while writing your first draft. Doing so doesn’t mean you’ll be removed from the story, and your creativity will suddenly capsize in the writer’s block dreaded seas. It’s an art form to learn how to master jumping in and out of your story while juggling day-job, kids, economic uncertainties, new job changes, and increasing inflation. But it’s the most realistic type of writing schedule that many creative working professionals currently have. Some people do have the luxury of doing nothing but write novels for a living. Others, like the late Stieg Larsson, author of the Girl With A Dragon Tattoo (Millennium trilogy), chose to continue working as a journalist while juggling being a successful published author.
The Jump-On & Jump-Off Writing Schedule For Busy Working Professionals & Why Listening To Your Unfinished WIP Early Can Help
It’s okay and even good practice to go back through your manuscript from the beginning even if you’re not done. I currently did this but waited until I was around 80K in, before I’d begun listening to my manuscript out loud using a software called Speechify. You simply upload a PDF of your manuscript on your phone and listen to it while walking to the park or at the gym. Of course, you want to keep momentum when writing your first draft. Still, as a busy mother who doesn’t have Stephen King’s money or his writing schedule, I’ve found myself on the jump-on and jump-off method of writing. Many busy aspiring authors start out having to stop and start, stop and start again. We often have to write in short sprints during the weekday and then finish our novels during the weekend. I have completed 100k manuscripts in 3-4 months.
Most recently, after having my second child, my son, I have found blazing through giant daily word counts unrealistic for my particular situation. My current WIP has taken roughly eight months. It’s my fifth manuscript, including one I shelved and the first WIP that’s taken the longest. But I’ve found taking my time has resulted in my word count being much more controlled. My chapters seem tighter. Choosing to listen to my WIP from the beginning helped me to hear line errors, watch for pacing, story structure, and character stuff. One of the biggest concerns is not being able to jump back in when you do have time to write again or feeling removed from your work when you’re not hammering out your story seven days a week. The beauty of using tools like Speechify to upload your manuscript and listen to it on the go is that you can be listening to your current unfinished WIP during the days when you can’t write. Listening, even when you’re not totally finished writing the book yet, can help you stay immersed in your story. I’ve taken extensive editorial notes right on my iPhone while supervising my kids at a park or exercising at the gym. You can also choose to read your manuscript from the top even if you’re not done yet to reduce larger rewrites down the line.
The Bottom Line
Contrary to what many writers think, revising while you’re writing can be advantageous. If you decide to do it, I suggest writing at least half of your manuscript before returning to the beginning. One of the benefits of doing this is to help you get unstuck, see if the flow is right, and prevent you from writing yourself into a corner. Writing yourself into a corner tends to happen a lot when writing blindly without any sort of direction, plot map, or extensive Stephen King type of experience under your belt. Veteran authors like Stephen King, who’ve been at it for much longer, have had tons more practice writing story structure, character, plot, pacing, and doing it all very quickly. Many aspiring and debut authors starting out can benefit from slowing down and taking the time to write their first draft because it’s not a competition. Just because seasoned authors or your writer buddy can crank out very quick first drafts doesn’t make their first draft any good.
You don’t know how often that “fast writer” has had to rewrite their story nearly cover-to-cover. I’ve known writers who have had to throw out full manuscripts written during NaNoWriMo. I’m not knocking fast writers or fast first drafts, and I think NaNoWriMo can be a great motivational exercise for writers needing the motivation to get their story out. I also acknowledge that quick writing doesn’t necessarily mean it’s automatically a pile of crap. We have to be careful with needing immediate gratification and expecting ourselves to have a first draft done so quickly. It serves no one any good when a manuscript is written haphazardly and has so many problems that a full rewrite is in order. I used to care about swiftness. Lately, I’ve been trying to have a much cleaner first draft where the pacing is tight, the word count is controlled, the characters are flushed out, and I know the general beginning, middle, and end of the story.
So, when people say that you’re supposed to write blindly and never stop until you’re finished, I respectfully disagree. It’s perfectly fine and actually advisable to stop and go back to see how you’re doing. It could potentially reduce major plot point problems that you can fix before it’s too late. Going back to the beginning can also help give you new ideas in terms of completing the manuscript. Having a sense of direction and slowing down when you’re writing your first draft and even going back to the very beginning to review how the story is coming along can immensely improve your chances of having a stronger completed manuscript that doesn’t require as many rewrites. Before we knock slower first drafts, remember that it took J.R.R. Tolkien twelve years to write the Lord Of The Rings series and another five years to get them published. Faster isn’t always better.