“The first draft is nothing more than a starting point”

November 1st, 2012 by

“The first draft is nothing more than a starting point, so be wrong as fast as you can.”

This is a quote from writer-director Andrew Stanton whose screenwriting credits include Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and Wall-E. This week in this series, I have been laser focused on the mandate about first drafts: “Get the damn thing done!”

The first three posts this week have been like a hammer on a nail, driving home the point about the singular importance of getting from FADE IN to FADE OUT.

Today we come at the subject from a slightly different vantage point. Andrew Stanton’s observation assumes the first draft will be a flawed document. Instead of lamenting that fact, Stanton embraces it.

Got that? When you write your first draft, you are going to be wrong. Yes, you are going to be right, too, but that initial effort is, as Stanton says, a “starting point.”

Given that state of affairs, why not adopt Stanton’s attitude: Be wrong as fast as you can. And how to do that? Pound out that first draft!

That doesn’t mean you neglect prep work. It doesn’t mean you blurt out crap. No. You do the best job you can. You are trying to do whatever you can to find your story and surface as many narrative nuggets as possible.

But you are not going to create perfection at this stage.

So remember:

“The first draft is nothing more than a starting point.”

The Quest” has entered Week 16! And so did Go On Your Own Quest, an opportunity for anyone to follow the structure of “The Quest” to dig into screenwriting theory [Core – 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep – 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages – 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Today and every Monday through Friday for 10 weeks, I’ll use this slot to post something inspirational as GOYOQ participants pound out their first drafts.

For background on “Go Into The Story: The Quest,” go here and here.

For all the previous weeks of Go On Your Own Quest posts, go here.

Join the GOYOQ Forums, a free online hub where you and other Quest participants can go to support each other and share your stories. Go here.

10 thoughts on ““The first draft is nothing more than a starting point”

  1. Paul Quade says:

    As a sort of personal geek game, I like to take quotes from famous people and pretend they were talking to one another.

    “News is the first draft of history.” — Philip L. Graham, Publisher, Washington Post.

    “The first draft of anything is shit.” — Ernest Hemingway

  2. Lydia Mulvey says:

    “The first draft is nothing more than a starting point, so be wrong as fast as you can.”

    I am a text-book example of this statement 😀

    Seriously though, I’m 35 pages in and hit a wall as my opening I’d originally plotted wasn’t doing anything for my central protagonist and as a result, never really got going.

    So I went back, cut five pages, inserted a brand new scene, kicked a character’s ass and now have a direction to go in that I am happy with.

    But for the most part, I just spew the words onto the page until I hit FADE OUT. Then onto the rewrite.

    Rewriting is my favorite part. It never used to be but there is something so satisfying taking something that is just rags blowing in the wind and battening it down so a hurricane can’t touch it.

    1. Lydia Mulvey says:

      Gah! Where’s the edit button? Words missing everywhere in my post…

      1. Don’t worry, it’s only a first draft.

  3. DJ Holloway says:

    I hate rewriting. I love to tweak, tighten, strengthen, and play with the words. But if something’s off structure-wise, if the narrative has derailed and I KNOW that I’ll never use this in a million years, I don’t continue. I hammer it out in my brain until I have it instead of pressing forward.

    In the name of progress, I will, however, write a scene that’s very on-the-nose and “sitting in a restaurant” knowing that I’ll want to punch it up with subtext and, I don’t know, a chase scene or something. (Ha ha, probably only to be reduced to the restaurant again during production in budget considerations.)

    I’ll also leave scenes with notes as I recognize something about the pacing isn’t where I want it – thinking more about finishing the draft than losing a day or two in in-depth scene work.

    But I trust my instincts. If I think something’s just not as good as it could be, I can write it to be productive and know that I can come back to the same basic setup of the scene and give it another go. But if I know something is WRONG, it’s time to fix it.

    All of which can be an advertisement for stronger prep work and outlining, which I get better at every time (my GOYOQ script will be my 13th finished script, not including shorts, and I’m STILL not perfect at the prep part, ha ha.)

    All that said, you DO have to get these things finished. Whatever your process, whatever your hangups, you have to finish because, as has been said here, it just doesn’t exist until it’s finished.

    I’ve read interviews with screenwriters who write 10-15 pages a day, whether or not it’s good, expecting to re-write. I’ve read others who say they only get a page a day, but when it’s done, it’s DONE, beautiful. But the important part is that both those screenwriters FINISHED.

  4. Jake MLB says:

    Scott, doesn’t this idea run in stark contrast to those writers who outline tirelessly before even typing FADE IN? I feel like this approach works for some but not others. With a detailed outline, sure, it’s much easier to rip through a first draft. But without one, you’re writing blind.

    1. Scott says:

      Jake, if you’ve been following the GOYOQ posts here, there were six whole weeks dedicated to prep-writing based on the online workshop I created Prep: From Concept To Outline. So yes, I concur: For most writers, breaking the story in prep is critical.

      But even then the way from FADE IN to FADE OUT is fraught with peril, most noticeably the Voices in our head: Self-Doubt, Self-Loathing, Lack Of Faith, What The Hell Are You Thinking.

      So I am using the first few weeks of Pages to drive home how singularly important it is to finish that first draft.

      And by the way, Stanton’s comments should be read in the context of the Pixar process where they don’t get to a first draft of a script until they have spent at least 1 year researching, developing, and plotting it. So even with all that prep work, he still sees a first draft as a starting point.

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