My Favorite Mistakes

This week, I began my readthrough of Without Condition. It’s my first time engaging with the text since I finished the first draft in June. It’s going well so far, with no glaring errors or passages where I think, “Jesus God, was I drunk when I wrote this?” or “Shut it down, I suck at writing, trying to be a writer is futile” (I prefer to think the latter on down days when I’m worrying about writing instead of actually writing).

I’m definitely seeing pieces that need to be fixed. I’m seeing other pieces I hope that Evelyn, my editor, will help me with. The most interesting pieces, though, are the fixes I need to make in every story I write — my favorite mistakes (OOO-oo!)

My favorite mistakes are the benign little errors that, while ones I or Evelyn catch when revising, are ones that always seem to come up in my first drafts. There are mistakes I’ve made that I make a conscious effort to not do again when I start my next story. But even with that effort, I still go back and see things I know have been noted as errors before. They’re almost comforting in an odd little way, especially since I’m familiar enough with them to see them as the mistakes they are and fix them.

One of my most common ones is to repeat a point in two or three different ways. I can almost see myself typing what came to me, typing another version, and then seeing which one stuck. Trouble was, I forgot to remove the ones that didn’t stick quite as well. It takes some time away to remember that I wrote something a few times over and need to pick the one that got it right (or if none got it right, to delete and try again).

The one that makes me laugh the most is my tendency to lapse into academic or formal writing, especially in narration. I’ll say a character cleansed instead of cleaned. A character who isn’t one for big words will say she humiliated someone instead of embarrassing them. Sometimes a formal word is nice, but usually, it glares up at me and seems so out of place, especially on a reread. I tend to get formal when I write, so it’s an easy mistake to make, and one that can be hard to remember to turn off for fiction writing. It does, however, give me a good chuckle when I’m reading and then stumble on a passage that could double as narration for a documentary.

I like being in a position to both laugh at my mistakes and to recognize them in ways where I don’t fear them. I am a perfectionist, and I tend to circle around revisions because I’m afraid of opening my drafts and being too overwhelmed with errors and rewrites. Seeing my mistakes as part of the process makes them less scary — and makes some of them true favorites of mine, like old friends saying hello. They’re friends that need to move on in final drafts, but it’s still a little comforting to see them.


Old drafts, like my favorite mistakes, can also seem like old friends; even if they simply serve to remind me how far a piece has come.

First drafts also have a tendency to all start the same, at least in their difficulty in coming together.

Still, the readthrough is an important step. Last summer, I was reading through Please Give and hoping for the best. The more things change, the more things remain the same.

When She Was Sloppy

All pieces start with a first draft, and with rare exception, all first drafts are bad. Aspiring writers — myself included — often forget that all great pieces came from bad first drafts, because we only get to see these pieces after they’ve gone through revisions, professional edits, and other polishes to make them less sloppy. I always appreciate it when my favorite authors share their early drafts to prove this point (though I say early, and not first, because I’m convinced that most first drafts will never see the light of day if their authors have anything to say about it).

I’ve discovered that the forgotten first draft experience can happen with my own writing. Over the past few months, I’ve engaged the most with second and third (and ninth and tenth) drafts of my pieces. The earliest drafts of Please Give ceased around New Year’s, with the first pages written getting heavily revised or completely rewritten; and any following pages being buoyed by those revisions. The new pages weren’t perfect by any means, but they were better than first drafts because I was more familiar with the story and where it was going.

Between chapters of Please Give, I worked on revising the short stories set to appear in The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales — reading them, getting feedback from readers, incorporating edits from Evelyn, and reading through them again. The first drafts of these stories were even more buried than the first words of Please Give, going back to the spring and summer of 2016.

Despite writing every day in 2017, new writing — brand new stories, with no drafts whatsoever to guide them and no revisions to shape them — didn’t happen at all until May, when the full draft of Please Give was done. At last, I had the time and mental space to start the new projects that were simply ideas. I cracked my knuckles, opened a brand new Word document, and let the words flow from my fingers.

Words that, as they I typed them, landed rather sloppily on the page.

I found myself looking curiously at these drafts. Why are these sentences so clunky? Why can’t I come up with a good transition from this scene to the next? Why did I use three adverbs in one sentence? Why am I using so many parentheses, and writing asides and exclamations instead of narration?

It’s because I’m writing a first draft — and even after writing several pieces to satisfactory completion, I still felt daunted by that, stuck on the fact that the ideal sentence wasn’t what was currently on paper. No matter how much I write, and no matter how pleased I am with the final versions of my stories, I still have to contend with sloppy first drafts. There’s simply no avoiding them.

They also shouldn’t be avoided. First drafts are where all stories begin, after all. And even with some clunky stumbles on the way, practice does make better. I find myself able to write more in one sitting, and making less of the mistakes (both style and technical) that I made almost by default not one year ago. A first draft is a first draft, though; and even with all the practice in the world, first drafts will always be rough.

Still, I appreciate reminders of when I was sloppy, and I’d rather get those reminders through writing sloppy first drafts than simply remembering them (or rereading them, though that can be fun when looking for a reminder of how far a piece has come). Remembering them means I’m not writing them. And like many writers say, writing a bad first draft — which everyone does — is better than writing nothing at all.