Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
August 11, 2023

Just. Write. The Thing.

by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

writer not actually writing

Today, I want to tell you to get over yourself.

I am in a lot of writers’ groups online and off, with literally tens of thousands of writers in various stages of their journeys. I regularly attend several writers’ conferences, am in a couple of critique groups, I had a weekly stream talking about the business of creativity, I both formally and informally mentor or help writers, you get the idea. I see a lot of writers, especially the statistically more common Beginning Writer variant. And the common issue I see many face is hesitation.

This is not going to be an inspirational post about having the courage to pitch your work. Nope, we’re going way back before that, to the very start. You can’t pitch what you haven’t written.

(Well, you can, actually, and that’s what a book proposal is. But book proposals are primarily for non-fiction and very, very well-established fiction authors. Neil Gaiman can propose an unwritten book; I can’t. So we won’t talk about proposals.)

This hesitation comes out in various ways and sometimes looks quite different, but we’re often just seeing different pips on the same die:

  • “I’m getting to the actual writing, I just need to go over my outline once more first”
  • “I spent three hours writing and got a few hundred words”
  • “NaNoWriMo [or other goal-oriented event] is only for people who don’t actually care about their writing”


What this all boils down to is a reluctance—often unconscious, in my observation—to actually get the story down in real prose.

Before we talk about the several reasons for this, let me deal with the hands which have already shot into the air. This is usually where someone takes a deep breath and launches, “Well, actually, Laura, not everyone works in the same way, and it’s unrealistic and rude to expect them to.” Great point, but irrelevant, and your attempt to deflect and defend won’t work here. I didn’t say anything about everyone needing to work in the same way, I said quite a lot of writers, especially but not limited to novice writers, have trouble getting their story down on a page. So, let’s get back to that.

As I was saying, there are multiple reasons offered for this hesitation—I don’t know how to get started, I don’t like the words that come out, I need to fix the words I’ve already written, and a host more—but these again reduce to a single root cause: fear that my draft will not be good enough.


There are several popular meme variations on a common “joke” (ha ha ha sob) about a first draft not matching up to the idea or concept. It’s funny because it’s true. When we have an idea, it’s necessarily more vague as a premise than as a 75,000 word manuscript, and it can be glorious in its imprecision. Everything that is blurry is assumed perfect. When we write it down, we have to suddenly get all those details right, and of course it’s not going to be finished to perfection in its first iteration.

Of Course

But a lot of writers miss that “of course.”

When there is a gap (or occasionally a chasm) between expectation and actualization, we get frustrated and disappointed. A lot of writers deal with that frustration and disappointment by just…avoiding it. “If I haven’t written the thing yet, I haven’t yet messed up the thing.” Which is true, as far as it goes, but also what an inefficient (and sad) way to write (and to live).

Now, just pulling that into view is sometimes enough to challenge it. As I said, this is often an unconscious sabotage, and realizing what we’re doing may be enough to disrupt it. But there are also several facts—yes, facts—we can consider to ourselves help get past this.

The other day a friend expressed reluctance to do something with a potentially scary outcome, and I told her that emotions are totally valid, but she should just also ask them to justify their influence. We did the math, and it turned out statistically she had a better chance of being struck by lightning than of the scary outcome. Not saying you can’t ever feel fear, but just ask it to explain itself, okay? So let’s look at this draft reluctance in clear light and rationally.


Let’s start with the silly one: Mistakes, inconsistencies, and ugly sentences in first drafts are not fatal. They’re not even serious problems. They’re barely non-serious problems.

Now I said this was silly, and it is. Most people will roll their eyes and say that of course they know errors in first drafts aren’t fatal, and what a stupid thing to even bring up. But if it’s so silly and so easy to reject, why do so many people let it deny their goals and dreams? Why are they still just 12k into that novel on its third year? Because **it feels fatal.**

Not nailing that concept-to-prose landing, not sticking that transition from glorious idea to compelling story, feels like failure. And as we all know from our character studies, “death” comes in several flavors, including failure, and also including perceptions of self. It’s why we can have a climax with a secret agent trying to keep a chemical from the water supply to save tens of thousands of lives, but also a climax with a middle schooler trying to push a special note to a classmate. We know this in fiction; it’s true for real life, too.

So we let the idea of mistakes become “failure”—even in a first draft. Which is indeed silly. Don’t let fear psych you out of doing what you want to do.


And here’s the second fact. First drafts are not just allowed to be bad, they are expected to be bad. That is why they are called FIRST drafts, with the inherent assumption that there will be more to follow.

When you write your first draft—full of errors and continuity problems and hard right turns in characterization because I only just now realized she’s motivated by guilt over accidentally killing her sister or that he has a latex allergy and all that glorious first draft mess—you immediately want to assess your work. And you naturally assess against your reading standards, which are universally NOT first drafts, but are the published books you love. And so you compare your fresh baby draft, barely into the world, to a professional’s fifteenth draft which has additionally undergone one or several professional edits. And then, when they don’t match—AND WHY WOULD THEY?—you feel frustration and disappointment.

So I’m here to say, get over yourself. 😊 Stop asking your first draft to match someone else’s fifteenth draft with a couple rounds of pro editing. You’re not that good—and no one is. I have here two suggested reminders, depending on your personal preferences for self-talk:

  1. I guarantee you Brandon Sanderson’s first draft does not look like the finished book you hold in your hands, either. It’s gonna be okay. First drafts exist just to make revision possible.
  2. Stop pretending you’re too good for the creative process and your first drafts should of course just naturally be better than everyone else’s fourth drafts, and join the rest of the writing community in hard work.


Now, here’s one more fact to remember: A first draft is much, much closer to a novel than an idea is. It is far, far easier to revise a first draft into that shiny finished product than it is to turn an idea into a finished product. Even though it may feel like your concept has been battered and destroyed by putting it into an imperfect first draft, it has to get worse before it gets better (kind of like cleaning out that one closet), and the ugly draft is actually so much closer to your goal.

Just. Write. The Thing.

And one more, though I won’t call it a fact because this is just personal experience, though I strongly suspect it could be a more universal experience: The more I consciously allow my first drafts to be awful, the better they are. If I get out of my own way, not micro-managing early attempts, I let the part of my brain with the ideas have better access to the keyboard. I can cite specific incidents where under deadline I said, “I’m just gonna vomit onto this page and I’ll salvage what I can later,” and then what came out was not just better than expected, but better overall. (A couple of those stories is are award winners.)

I know several writers who generally write fairly clean first drafts and need fewer drafts overall. All of them write fairly quickly. That’s a small and highly informal sample, but I don’t think it’s wholly coincidental. It’s not about the technical speed (words per hour), it’s about just getting it down without getting in your own way.

Again, because it’s important: it's not about technical speed, hitting 2500 words an hour or whatever. It's about getting the story down so there's something to revise. You can't edit a blank page.

I’m not saying not to plan or outline. I’m definitely not saying that quality of the finished product doesn’t matter. I’m saying that you’re probably better than you’re allowing yourself to be, and you can choose to approach it differently.

Now go write the thing!

Discussion: Have you found yourself hesitant to write because it wasn’t going as well as you hoped? Do you have any favorite techniques to get around your inner critic?

* * * * * *

Laura VanArendonk Baugh

About Laura

Laura VanArendonk Baugh writes fantasy of many flavors as well as non-fiction. She has summited extinct, dormant, and active volcanoes, but none has yet accepted her sacrifice. She lives in Indiana where she enjoys Dobermans, travel, fair-trade chocolate, and making her imaginary friends fight one another for her own amusement. Find her award-winning work at http://LauraVAB.com.

13 comments on “Just. Write. The Thing.”

  1. Great points, Laura!

    I saw my issues all over this post. Overtime I've learned to laugh at myself, thankfully.

    The first few words on the page are a lot like the first brushstrokes on canvas, or watercolor paper. It starts out pristine and full of promise. Why mess it up?

    Life is messy. First drafts by definition are messy.

    I do best when I don't overthink, and let the muse sing me a tale.

    1. >> I saw my issues all over this post. <<

      Look, sometimes we're qualified to write the blog post because we have experience, y'know? 😀

      I love your example of the blank watercolor paper, full of promise and potential and going to be spoilt by the first stroke. And yet.

      Happy writing!

  2. Oh, man, my inner critic can really dampen my writing output.
    One thing I do to stay engaged is to play music and promise myself a simple reward to get me over the hump.

    Thanks for the encouraging post, Laura.

    1. I'm turning on my writing music RIGHT NOW, as I procrastinate by checking comments. 😀 Chocolate-covered fruit helps me, too. 😀

  3. This is me in a nutshell! I edit as I go and just sit there, making excuses not to finish a scene because I can't get it right. In the past I've abandoned writing projects because of this need to have a perfect first draft. I'm almost done some kind of draft of my second book in a series and it's one I can't abandon. So, I've given myself permission to skip over or lightly outline what's giving me fits and carry on. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

    1. I also love to edit as I go, which I tell myself is okay as long as I keep forward progress too -- but I have to make sure I do. Good luck with your next draft!

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