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How are your stinky first drafts doing? 

This week I completed a stinky first draft of a new play. I felt victorious. I felt defeated. I felt nauseous. 

This is always the case for me.

My brain understands that the stink is part of the process. (I assure you that the stink is part of the process.)

And yet, I’m always surprised and a little disappointed when the first draft does actually stink. 

This is always the case for me. 

Despite a multitude of examples to the contrary, I thought maybe this time it would be different. Maybe this time my play would spring from my mind in fully-formed perfection. Maybe this time I wouldn’t have to grind out five gazillion drafts just to get it to an acceptable shape for a reading around my kitchen table with my three kindest friends.

Oh well, not this time. (This is always the case for me. Is this the case for you?)

Friends, I don’t have a problem with a blank page. I have a problem with what I write on it. 

Anyone else feel that way?

This is what helped me accept the reality of writing the despicable first draft:

  • Pep-talks from my friends
  • A spirited sixty minute walk
  • Advice from Ian Finley (more on that below)

Ian and Tamara look happy because they are talking about writing and not actually writing.

I accept that writing is work. Writing is revision. And more work. And more revision. 

I accept.

And I turn to one of my favorite podcast conversations with playwright and 2012 Piedmont Laureate, Ian Finley. Ian tells it like it is, and I find a lot of comfort in that. 

I find comfort in knowing that we all go through this.

Solidarity, writers! Make a stink! Carry on! 

When you have 50 minutes, listen to Ian tell it here: 043: What good is a bad first draft? Playwright and arts educator Ian Finley extols the power of revision.

For now, take a look at the transcript below and revel in his wisdom about revision. 


Timestamp: 10:00


Let’s talk a little bit about revision because I know this is something else that you have strong opinions about. And I’m in agreement. Your assertion is that revision is 75% of the work in writing a new play. 


Yeah. So I hate Lord Byron.  I love his poetry. What I hate about him and all the Romantics was this belief that they put forward that is still so prevalent – that art is just given to you. Like the muse reaches down and you’ve got this great idea and you’re inspired and you go off and you write it and it’s done. And it’s a lie. It’s a gigantic lie. And it’s a destructive lie because it makes people feel that when they don’t get inspired that way, that they can’t write, that they can’t create.

Timestamp: 10:53


And it’s a lie because that’s not how Byron wrote. Byron wrote and then he revised, he put the work in. Again, it’s a craft, not an art. The art comes out of the craft, right? The working of the pieces….

Timestamp: 11:38


The first draft really ought to be quite horrible. Because if it’s not, you’re not trying anything, You’re doing the safe, easy thing if it’s any good in that first draft. Greatness is next door to awful. It’s like 10 miles away from good. Right? if you’re ever going to be really great, you’ve got to allow it to be just miserable in that first draft. And then you can fix it later on. Anything can be fixed once it’s done. And it’s an iterative process, right? You learn about the work by writing it. You don’t learn about it by researching. You don’t learn about it by outlining. Those are important things. And you do need to do some degree of them.

Timestamp: 12:27


But you learn about the characters. You get to know the characters, you get to know the world by spending time in that world, which means piling up pages, and writing. And then once you’ve written it, you realize that 80% of it is crap and has to be thrown away, but it’s not wasted time. It’s how you got to know what you are actually writing. So the first draft is what is really your outline, right? The second draft is like your deeper outline and then maybe by the third draft you get something that’s sort of your first draft. Right? The process of revision, I would say is 75% of the work, that first draft maybe outlining all that is 25%. Revision is 75% because anything can be fixed if you’re willing to do that.