A young writer with relatively little experience in practicing his craft recently asked me what the benefits are of a first draft. I couldn't wait to respond.
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First-draft benefits? Are you serious? You might as well ask what the benefits are of buying a first car! Both eventually get you where you want to go, although not necessarily quickly enough to satisfy you.
Still, first drafts do serve a purpose, although there's no explanation of that purpose that fits all writers. In fact, a first draft serves different purposes for different writers at various stages of their careers. When I broke my teeth on long-form fiction fifty years ago, a first draft was my Red Badge of Courage. It showed me—proved to me—that I could write a novel. Never mind how good it was (it wasn't), and never mind that I didn't even think of it as a first draft (it was). I wrote it, and, by gum, I was proud of it.
Later in my development, a first draft became less of a measuring stick of my capabilities and more of an opportunity to screw something up before going back and setting things right. It enabled me to practice my concerto before lugging my instrument over to the concert hall for a performance. It also allowed me to see whether or not all the various pieces fit together in a way that made sense. It functioned as both a sounding board and a roadmap to where I wanted to go.
Today, I find that writing, editing, and rewriting/fine-tuning long fiction work best for me as I go along. I have no "first draft," then. Or I have nothing but first drafts, depending upon how you look at it. I have an evolving story. When I finish chapter one and prepare to start chapter two, I go back and re-read what I've already written, making changes along the way as necessary. I add and remove things to and from that chapter as warranted. I hone it until I'm happy and ready to push the story forward. When I finish chapter two and sit down to write the next chapter (or whatever), I go back and review everything I've already written again. That gives me a chance both to hone the work to near perfection and bring me up to speed, so I know not only where I'm going with the next bit of material but also where I've been. After that, it's more of the same beginning with the following chapter.
By the time I've finished the book, I may have re-read and reworked some portions of it five or six dozen times or more, always looking for ways to improve it. And, not surprisingly, finding them.
Do I ever write from start to finish without going back and refining before plodding on? Only with shorter pieces, although I subject even those to numerous re-reads and edits. It's the curse of perfection—even for those of us who know we'll never reach nirvana, since it exists only in our minds.
So, first drafts for beginners and novice writers? They probably serve a purpose—most likely the same one they served for me. As a writer matures and grows in the knowledge of his craft, the purpose and, perhaps, the very existence of first drafts likely come into question. At least that's how it was with this young cowboy setting off on his first real rodeo.
Smoke if you got 'em.