The First Cut is…

..the shittest. 😀

I realised I hadn’t written anything for my Common Writing Advice series in a while so it seemed  – providential? Foruitous? summat of that nature  –  that I have been churning this phrase around in my head for a while…


Now I don’t spend the time I used to on writing sites, but whenever I chance to pass one there is always someone quoting this. And it’s not necessarily on a thread titled ‘Why is my first draft so shit?’ It can manage to crop up anytime, anywhere..

Adverbs – well you know, the first draft of anything is utterly shit and totally full of adverbs…

Love triangles …. I wouldn’t worry, the first draft of anything is shit and you can always turn the other guy into her pet tortoise later.


Yes, I was yelling, I apologise. It’s still fucking brilliant advice though.

Essentially said by every writer ever, it boils down to, just write.

It almost feels like its not writing advice at all, more a matter of reaching in to the ether and pulling truth out. Because..


You gotta crack the marble, sully the page – and it does often feel like that, like we’re staining something pure with something less than.. something a bit shit. Whatever confidence I have – there’s gotta be some somewhere, as my mammy says, if I really didn’t believe in myself would I still be trying? – so whatever it is that keeps me trying, it’s not what I haven’t written, it’s buried amongst what I squeezed out… okay I’m a bit squeamish about the shit metaphors so I’m dropping them now..

The writer must write and they must stop expecting perfection every time. If you aren’t sorely disappointed then you’re probably frighteningly delusional. Though I’ve heard that works in Hollywood 😀



This might be the one piece of advice that I can’t question, would probably need my head examined if I did, and yet knowing the wisdom in doing something and actually doing it are two very different concerns. Worse – for me – is when you do manage to do something and it doesn’t remotely end up the way you expected. The good advice about writing shit, just leaves you with a lot of shit (okay last excrement word play.. promise)

For many writers however much sense it makes, actually powering through is a very difficult task. Unfortunately I know no neat little tricks to get round it. If you fall of the wagon one day, get up the next and try again. And the next. And the next. This isn’t just a matter of the first draft. Writing, like exercise, is a battle of will.

For me it can be a peculiar form of torture, alleviated by all too brief Eureka moments, a sudden realisation, twist, revelation (entirely textual not spiritual, though it feels almost as if it were). On the odd occasion I have attempted to explain this no one gets why I would do it, how I can still love it. But I do. Passion can be painful. But if its there, you’ll find a way to endure. And if its not, you’ll probably still be working on chapter three a decade on. That’s okay. It’s a personal battle and the true measure of the results is yours alone to judge.

I’ve mastered for the most part the powering through. It’s a fight every day, so that answer can change every day, but the books are balancing in my favour. My first novels were masterclasses in ‘don’t stop, just write’ and testament to how hard that is. So much so I had to cut 70,000 from the first one. The problem is that’s pretty much where my editing days ended.

I don’t edit.

I read through and tweak. Sometimes. But shit needs a lot more than mere tweaking.

I could argue my first drafts have improved with time. It could be that I still struggle with reading my own work. I’ve heard some actors feel this way. I don’t know much about the practical realities of acting, but I know a writer needs to read their own stuff. And in a sense I do. I read as I write. Sometimes the flow carries me to the end of a chapter, but often I stop every few lines, to read and tweak (if necessary) and think where the direction is taking me and where I might prefer to direct it. And if I don’t like what I read, or the direction its going in, that’s where the ‘don’t stop, just write’ mantra gets particularly painful.

I have one sequel I’m 40,000 words into, and was really quite enjoying it, til I wrote a scene and now, I’ve tried but I just can’t seem to pick it up again. All I can think about is that one wrong scene.

I have another which earned me a kind rejection from an editor,  who advised I get an agent, rework the issue she’d flagged and re-sub. I haven’t looked at it since.

I have a start on a kids book that I totally bungled the voice on. I could probably write it in about two months, it’d be exactly the kind of thing I would have loved aged ten, but I think the only way I’ll return to it is if I start completely from scratch.

The list goes on. Having mastered powering through step one, I now feel like I have to master powering through step two. I often feel that the only good edit looks like this


I’m sure I’m wrong.

It’s fucking brilliant advice. It is…

But… if you are having some issues with putting it into practice and making it work for you, this might help.

1… Don’t stop thinking.

Its easy to get caught up in the word counts, deadlines. To put your head down terrified that if you pause those fingers for longer than it takes to find the capslock key, you’ll end up frozen. If you allow yourself to think, maybe all you’ll think about is how bad it is. Thinking is the untalked about part of writing, which is a shame because thinking is the most important bit. You have to discipline your mind as much as you have to discipline your fingers, it’s as easy to get caught up in a cycle of ‘oh my god I suck’ as it is to get caught up in Candy Crush Saga. But you can’t stop thinking, questioning the path you’ve chosen for your character, the dialogue you’ve written, decisions made and you have to learn the difference between something being wrong and something just needing  a bit of finessing.

2…Don’t stop listening to your gut

If something feels wrong, it’s wrong –  nine times out of ten –  but you need to learn the difference between fearing its wrong and knowing its wrong. Every word I write leaves me unsure, but some few leave me a little more unsure than usual. They tend to stick. This is why I find it useful to go back the next day and read over what I wrote. Most often they still feel wrong. In the majority of cases it’s a story issue – a matter of driving the scene in the wrong direction, putting the wrong tone or emphasis on it, rather than feeling there were better words I could have used. Dusting off the prose is the easier side of editing. This leads me directly to…

3… Don’t ever be afraid to rewrite

There seems at times to be a blurring of the concepts of editing and rewriting. We use them interchangeably, yet when looked at closer, often you’ll find the average writer has a real fear of rewriting, especially rewriting that involves scrapping anything.

I’m a scrapper. Sometimes for the wrong reasons but..

If you continue to write – to power through rather than listen to your gut – you could end up spending a lot of wasted time going in the wrong direction. One small mistake can knock everything out. Go back to where things were last good and start again. If you think you can tweak it into shape, by all means try, but don’t be afraid to scrap. I’ve heard a lot of advice – all writers in fact that I know give this advice – that nothing should ever be thrown away. That’s not something I would necessarily agree with, although I won’t insist upon it either way, but I would say, a writer should never be precious about their prose, any more than a painter should be precious about his paint. He doesn’t save his dirty palette wrapped in clingfilm to preserve the mix for his next painting. He trusts that his eye will guide him to know what is needed when it is needed. The words aren’t going to run out and neither is your ability to put them together. Each story will require its own peculiar configurations, recycling and pasting in never feels organic or stable to me. Perhaps my issue with editing in a nutshell.

It might be another way of saying kill your darlings, but there is something incredibly liberating about scrapping. You just have to know when you’re being insecure and when you’re being brave.

bonnie quote










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