Why Hemingway was right

This quote more than any other kept me writing (source: www.redbubble.com)

This quote more than any other kept me writing (source: http://www.redbubble.com)

If you happen to walk past my house over the coming days you may hear the odd squeal of delight. No, not that sort of squeal. It’s just me getting excited because I’m coming to the end of the 1st draft of my sequel to Second Chance. The process has taken a little longer than I had expected, not because of any particular writing issues, just that life had a tendency to get in the way. There may also have been the odd moment of procrastination – some of them odder than others – but I was soon brought to heel by writers I have befriended, either through this blog or more recently through twitter. You know who you are and I can’t thank you enough for your support.

As is usual at this point of my writing process – listen to me, the experienced novelist with one whole book under his belt – I’m already thinking about what I’m going to change. Now this might come a surprise to some of you. In fact, I know it will due to a number of recent conversations I’ve had, mostly from writers starting out on their path.

“Why haven’t you already made the changes?” I hear you cry. “You haven’t finished your first draft yet, there’s still time.”

Well there are a number of reasons.


What I’m about to tell you is something that works for me. Having spoken to other authors and having read plenty more texts on how to write, I believe it works for many others too. But it is not the way to write because there is no the way to write. The only way for you to write is the way that works for you; anything else is hot air.

When I write my first draft, all I’m worried about doing is getting the ideas out of my head. I’m not concerned about the prose, whether I have captured things well, if the dialogue is stilted or not or if I’ve committed any grammatical sins; all I want to do is tell the story. This doesn’t mean I’m not trying to write well, or I don’t think about what I’m writing. I’m not advocating a stream-of-consciousness methodology (unless of course you are a stream-of consciousness poet, in which case move along, nothing to see here). During my writing process there have been days where I feel I could crap gold, and other days where I’m convinced what I have written should never see the light of day, but unless I have trouble sleeping at night they are both kept as part of the first draft.

I haven’t always been this way. When I started writing would often spend days trying to perfect a single scene. I would become frustrated if I couldn’t find the exactly the right word and my writing would grind to a halt as I stubbornly refused to open a thesaurus. There were times where I would write a sentence, delete it, write it again then delete it once more. Then I read what Hemingway wrote about first drafts.

The strange thing was, I had heard from various quarters that with the first draft, you just needed to get it down. Don’t look back, just write. But I thought this was advice for new writers, for amateur writers, and I didn’t want to be an amateur writer, I wanted to be A WRITER. It all sounds a little ridiculous now, looking back. As far as process is concerned, there is no difference. It was only when I read what Hemingway wrote, that I realised the advice was universal.

So instead of searching for perfection first off I wrote the rest of my first draft without looking back, and it was only when I finished it that I learnt the reasons why this approach is so highly regarded:

You don’t know what your book is about until it is written

This may seem counterintuitive. Surely you know what the book was about before you start writing, especially if you are a planner like me. Before I wrote Second Chance I had certain themes that I wanted to explore and I thought that the first draft covered them well. The problem was, my brain had other ideas. Even though I thought I knew what the book was about, it was only once I had finished that I realised the core story was something else entirely.

What you thought was good may not be, but what you thought was bad may not be either

You remember me mentioning days where I thought I could crap gold? When I read back some of those scenes I was embarrassed with the prose. At the same time, there were scenes I had written and felt depressed afterwards where I got a pleasant surprise.  This is why it’s important not to get too hung up on what you have written in the first draft. It is very difficult to know what is good and bad at the time. By the time you have finished writing, a number of months (if you are lucky) or even years may have passed between your first written words and the last. Your thoughts on the story and your skill levels will have changed during that time. You need space to forget about the book for a while (which is why it is recommended that you leave it for a few weeks) so that you can look at it with fresh eyes. You’ll be surprised what you find.

But the most important part I learnt was:

It is during the editing process that your story and prose reaches its full potential.

When you go back to your book and start the edit, there will be scenes that need a light touch, others that need a hard prune and still others that may need ditching or re-writing completely. But you cannot do this, or at least I could not do this, until I had the context of knowing what the book was about and got to know each of the characters , and that couldn’t happen until that first draft was finished.

So instead of worrying, get the first draft down and enjoy the ride; the real work starts during the edit.



27 thoughts on “Why Hemingway was right

  1. I, too, am a planner. I like to have a thorough outline first. I even include some sketchy narrative and dialogue in that outline, so it’s almost a first draft in and of itself. But when I get to the official first draft, I’ve learned to just write and not look back. Like you, I used to reread what I wrote and try to perfect it, only finding that I later had to scrap what I spent hours working on. Now it’s full speed ahead. It’s much easier to kill your darlings when you haven’t spent oodles of time trying to get their prose right. By the time I get to the second draft, I feel like I can relax, because that’s my favorite part. I enjoy editing. For me, it’s less frenzied than the creation phase.

    • I feel like I could have written your post, Dylan, and your comment here, Carrie. I have 4 incomplete drafts of my novel, each one crafted with way too much fretting over trying to get it right. After setting the whole project aside for more than 18 months, I’m back at restructuring, planning, and outlining. My goal is to get this “new first draft” written in July’s Camp NaNoWriMo. Since I don’t work in the summers, it seems ideal time-wise. Plus, the mission of NaNoWriMo is “get the damn thing written” — and that’s what I need. I know I’ll have thoughts of chickening out in the weeks leading up to July 1, but I really want to do this. It will be good for me. Great post, and very inspiring, Dylan. Thanks.

      • I’ve never done NaNo, but I think the concept is good–just keep writing to get the thing done. I wish you luck with it! I bet you’ll do well since you already have an outline and other drafts to draw from.

      • Thank you, Gwen. Setting aside the time, setting a goal and treating it as a job (writing even when you don’t feel like it) coupled with the “no going back” approach have worked well for me. I’ve always liked the concept of NaNoWriMo even if the timing has never worked out for me. I wish you luck and will be there to support you all the way 🙂

  2. The first problem is giving yourself permission to write really badly. Hard, but not impossible. But the one hardly anyone talks about is the way it can come back to bite you after you have accepted first drafts are wonky.

    I am most of the way through re-reading the first draft of a novel I wrote earlier this year. There are things that need to be fixed, but there are also large areas that read really well. This might seem like a good thing were it not for the issue that I am so used to fixing the dross in editing that my immediate thought when faced with good prose is not “Editing will be easier” but “Why hasn’t putting it aside for months let me find the issues with this section?”

    • Very good point, Dave! It’s up there with rewriting a sentence 6 times during the edit because you can, each time being perfectly adequate but no improvement on the original.

  3. I’m not a planner and have always chosen to write to get the ideas out on paper before I try to make them pretty. If I spend too much time perfecting in the first draft, I lose my spark.

    • It’s a very good point. It’s the same for me, even though I outline. There have been so many ideas seemingly plucked from the ether while writing the first draft which would have been lost if I had continually corrected.

  4. Another excellent post about the creative process, Dylan. I feel the single most useful development in modern creativity is the facility to do it electronically. I remember the physical effort of writing, scratching out, discarding, literal cutting and pasting, arrows and boxes when writing anything from letters to essays. How much paper was wasted! Typing made it only marginally easier.

    Nowadays the image of the literary artist in the garret surrounded by scrunched up sheets of paper is anachronistic when autosaves and formatting and all those other aids make novel writing, blogging and indeed e-letters and essays a less frustrating task.

    But it may well mean that future Christopher Tolkiens won’t be able to earn a living sifting and editing and republishing in multi-volume form drafts of fantasy writers’ epics…

    • Thank you, Chris. I agree on the benefit of technology. I’m not sure I would have written, let alone published my book if I’d had to edit and re-type, or been worse, write out again by hand. I can’t speak for other writers, but I still print out and hand edit the important drafts, so I think there may be work for future Christopher Tolkeins.

  5. Great stuff this Dylan, for a newbie book writer like me still winding my way through my first draft. In fact, this is very encouraging because this is just what I’m doing, chucking down the words but I thought it was just ‘me’ having no experience with book writing. I figured I’d do the rest with the edit and now, reading here, I see I’m not the only one. I remember another Hemingway quote about his writing process.. ‘All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed’. Since I’m writing a true and sometimes difficult story this is how I feel (although of course, I’m no Hemingway!!!). Anyway, I really appreciate all you share here Dylan, you are inspiring me to keep going with my writing in more ways than you know, thanks so much 🙂

    • You may be no Hemingway, but he was no Sherri Matthews! The joy of ‘chucking words down’ is you have something to compare to your internal vision of what the novel should be. Editing is trying to move what you have written closer to this vision; whether through re-writes, judicious pruning, reorganisation or complete new scenes. Just keep ‘chucking them down’ Sherri and you’ll get there. 🙂

  6. What a brilliant post! I heartily endorse what you say, even though I didn’t have the chance to do this. I began editing whilst I was only half-way through writing my first draft, as I started working with my mentor and we went back to the beginning of the draft. Working with her was rewarding in many ways and I learned a lot, but it was also confusing to be in two places at once. First-drafting and editing involve totally different mental processes and I wouldn’t do it that way again!

    • “First drafting and editing involve totally different mental processes”

      This has to be the understatement of the week! On wis setting your mind free, capturing what happens whether within the framework of a predefined plot or not. The other is to rigidly focus on getting the shape, flow and balance of the story right through hard-nosed analysis of structure, prose and characterisation. I love both disciplines but I don’t envy you having to manage them at the same time!

  7. You know what they say the first draft is for the author. It’s true. I have to edit the first draft a little bit or I go so far off topic that I have to bin vast tracts and start again – 70,000 words of the last novel. So I did NanoWriMo and I ended up with a story that had a beginning and an end but went horribly wrong. I binned about 20,000 of the 30,000 words I managed during Nano.

    So while I agree that you need to press on with your first draft or you’ll never reach the end, you also need to keep to plan or if you’re me, keep to the plan you don’t actually know you have, and, at least re-read, to keep it all on track.



    • I like that statement: the first draft is for the author. I agree that you need to know what you’ve written to make sure you’re on track, but there’s a difference between checking the story and editing as you go along.
      With my first novel I wrote 120,000 words in the first draft and reduced it to 88,000 by the end (I went down to 80,000 at one point and realised I’d edited too far). I don’t see those 30,000 words as a waste, though, as without them I wouldn’t have got to the point I did. Of course, the real answer is a point I made earlier: the best way to write is the way that works best for you. 🙂

      • Absolutely true and yeh, I, too, have no regrets about the stuff I binned. I am going to try plotting the next book though. I think I can only pants if I have a certain amount of time at my disposal, otherwise it leaks out of my head. I don’t have that time, so I’m going to have to reinvent the way I work. Should be interesting.



      • I plot, but only loosely. If a character reacts differently than I expected I go with the flow, then work out the implications afterwards. It means I know where I’m going but (hopefully) don’t have plot driving characters rather than the other way around.

      • Yeh, I can go with that. At the moment I tend to have a couple of characters and an ending which I write towards. My next up is pretty much plotted, the one after is a couple of lines of dialogue, a picture of an aeroplane and a name. As this current lot of characters finally vacates the premises, bits of that one are beginning to take shape. Once my next two books are out (June and July) I’ll be interested to see what the fragments turn into.

  8. Great post, Dylan. And so true. I am about at the same place you are. I have a couple finished novels under my belt, but I am working on the first draft of a sequel to one of them. I, too, used to get very caught up in trying to perfect the first draft. I found that when I did so, it really stunted my creativity. I used to dread the revision process, but now I am actually coming to like it. Thank you for reinforcing the attitude I adopt toward writing the first draft.

    • Thank you, Matthew, for your kind words. I agree entirely, this approach gives you the freedom to be creative without the fear of messing up. If what you’ve written doesn’t work, you can always change it in the edit.

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