What to Do When Your Draft Genuinely Sucks

Image by Anuj Chawla from Pixabay

Every writer I know understands that producing a book–or even an article or blog post–is a process. It’s rare for people to spew one version of something, hit publish, and have the world applaud. Instead, most of the time, content goes through multiple, painstaking rounds and is shaped over many days, weeks, or months. We accept that first drafts, although crummy, can become beautiful.

But sometimes–maybe even a lot of the time–you might read your draft over and know in your heart of hearts that no amount of reworking is going to fix it. What do you do then?

1. Look at the concept, not the technique.

When a draft is beyond repair, it’s usually because there are flaws in the concept itself, not because you “can’t write”. So just as a contractor would move to better ground instead of investing in a resource suck on sand, you need to move on to something more solid and have faith you can build elsewhere, too. Having one bad concept doesn’t mean that all of your ideas are awful, and when you get a new one that works, your technique will still be there to build it up.

Before you start your next project, think critically about what was wrong with the concept. Maybe biases got in the way, for example. Or maybe the concept was just too “busy” and didn’t fit into any of the usual story archs enough to be workable. Other people can help you figure it out with good feedback. Whatever it is, once you’ve identified the issue, you’ll be in a better position not to make the same mistake next time.

2. Pick out the gems.

Even in the shi–iest of drafts, there’s something that sparkles. Maybe that’s just one chapter. Maybe it’s a particular character who feels realer than real and speaks really deeply to you. Maybe it’s a single sentence. But I guarantee there is something shiny. Go pull it out. You don’t have to even know how or where you’ll lose it. The point is that you recognize the shine and have the courage to save it. You’ll know when you have the right context or “home” for whatever you’ve saved because the placement into a new draft will feel incredibly natural or like an “aha” moment. As you wait for that right context to manifest, you can look back on those gems to keep your confidence up that yes, you CAN create something pretty amazing. It’s right there.

3. Go read something.

I know, I know. Reading great writing as you battle your own Drafty McDraft Suck experience might seem like the last thing you need. (How could you be on par with those writers?) But when writing is really good, it stands on its own and you stop comparing. You start thinking. You can feel all kinds of emotions and have all kinds of questions run through your head. Jot that all down in a notebook or a digital doc. Let it be fodder for later and use it as inspiration for research. If you analyze why you’re thinking and responding as you are in the context of what the author did, then you’ll know exactly what to do in your own voice to get a future draft that yields the reaction you want from your own readers, too.

4. Review your big picture.

Does a single bad draft mean that you can’t query something else? Nope. Does it mean all of your previous successes disappear? Nope. Does it mean you’ll never have a book on store shelves? Nope.

All a bad draft means is that you figured out one path that wouldn’t take you to your finish line. But the finish line itself and all the work you’ve done up to today to get closer to it is still there. Zoom out to see it. Ask yourself if it’s one you still want to cross–it’s OK if priorities and goals change! If that finish line still excites you, then congratulate yourself on what you learned from taking the wrong path and come up with a new route.

Not every draft is going to be a winner or sellable. That’s OK. But every draft can teach you something and make the next piece you create a little better. Hone in on that and don’t let yourself ever believe that that win is even close to any kind loss.