What should a first draft look like?
The only correct answer to this question is the old English saying, “How long is a piece of string?” The question is a relative one; the answer is different in every case.
And yet the question is important to any writer seeking feedback on their work. Because each writer’s process is different—sometimes wildly so—from the next writer’s, a first draft can be anything from a fairly polished piece of work to a near stream-of-consciousness ramble. I’ve seen first drafts entirely lacking punctuation; with characters unaccountably disappearing, or their personalities flipping and seesawing; with subplots appearing and vanishing like quarks in the primordial soup.
The question is one of assumptions and expectations.
Imagine the prospective buyer of a new home turning up to find the walls have only been framed and the sheetrock isn’t up yet: they’re going to get a bad shock, and take issue with the seller. Similarly, unless the reader’s expectations are somewhat aligned with the individual writer’s concept of a first draft, any critique is likely to be off the mark and there’s a good chance one or both parties will be left unhappy and frustrated.
Fortunately, extreme examples aside, there’s a bell-curve graph with most writers’ first draft output sitting somewhere in the middle range (in fact, we should probably never show anyone an absolutely raw first draft, which I define as a rough draft, but rather a ‘breathed-over’ version, one we’ve at least done a fast pass through to pick up the most horrid inconsistencies and omissions).
In general, I believe a first draft ought to be readable and somewhat internally consistent, though lacking polished prose or elaborate sensory and setting description. The major characters should all be present and, on the whole, believable, though goals and motivations may be shaky and need bracing and solidifying; plot and subplots will be visible, but probably unfocused and thin in places; pacing may be patchy, and some scenes will be working better than others; there will likely be structural issues, scenes in the wrong place, or missing; and so on.
Unless a beta reader’s expectations are correctly set, they’re likely to spin their wheels on things that don’t matter yet or become frustrated at the unfinished and patchy quality of the work—probably both. I recently ran afoul of this myself with an inexperienced reader whom I foolishly allowed to see an early draft of mine, and who proceeded to comment as though it were a finished work: whereas experienced writers and critiquers will generally make allowances, it’s probably best to save less experienced readers for final drafts.
Typically what a writer requires of a first draft reader is a ‘macro,’ an assessment of the work at a thematic, structural and character level. Key feedback might include:
- Does the opening hook you?
- Do you buy the premise?
- Is the plot plausible?
- What are the holes in it?
- Are the major characters believable?
- Do you care what happens to them?
- Do their goals and motivations make sense?
- Where do they behave inconsistently?
- Are the stakes sufficient to keep the reader interested?
- Is the pacing generally okay?
- Where are the flat bits?
- Is the ending satisfying?
Going back to our house analogy, we’re definitely not ready to choose paint colours yet. What we’re looking for here is to make sure the house is correctly framed with the walls in the right places and the angles true, that the roof isn’t going to leak, and that all the main services are correctly located where they’ll be needed. So although a brief note that more description and setting detail will be required may be in order, no reader of a first draft should even consider line-level edits or (heaven help us) typos. All that stuff will get fixed on the rewrites, or the writer isn’t worthy of the name.
So a wise writer will prime their beta readers with notes or discuss the kind and level of feedback they’re looking for in advance. Even the catch-all, ‘anything that’s not working’ is okay, though I prefer to be more specific. If you’re concerned about a question prejudicing your reader (i.e., ‘does the protag’s plan go too well and the resolution appear too easy?’ ), just ask them that at the debrief when they’ve finished reading.
Of course, we want to know what is working as well, and to hear that we’ve written a great story or novel, and experienced critiquers will leaven and balance their comments appropriately. But ego strokes should be secondary: as Paul Park once put it, “‘like’ isn’t useful feedback for a writer.” Brutal but true, and why you should resist showing your work to friends and family (unless they are writers) until it’s finished and ready for print. Right now, what you need to know is what’s standing between that first draft and greatness.