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Crossing the finish line: The First Draft vs. Perfectionism

Crossing the finish line: The First Draft vs. Perfectionism

first draft mindset Feb 26, 2024

“A horrible first draft is better than a blank page.”

Not according to that little voice in my head that tells me anything done imperfectly isn’t worth doing at all.

And if you’re here reading this article, it’s a little voice in your head too.


Perfectionism is killing your novel

Perfectionism can kill your novel in a variety of ways. It can keep you from sharing it. It can keep you from querying it. It can keep you from finishing it.

ALSO: Why You Will Never Finish Your Novel

The endless self-editing. Nit-picking every word choice before writing anything. Days upon weeks upon months of “the scene doesn’t feel right” writer's block. Dreaded first-chapter syndrome. An endless loop of one “last” correction.



Listen, I’ve rewritten this next paragraph a dozen times already, and I’m now just going to use it as an example of killing your perfectionism (see: Use a Move Along Phrase). 

I have OCD – formally diagnosed and medicated for a decade. Some of my compulsions involve writing, which makes it very hard to write sometimes. It also means that the perfectionism I feel can be paralyzing and anxiety-inducing. Fortunately, that means I’ve had to come up with creative workarounds that target the specific thoughts fueling perfectionism.

These are the six best tricks I’ve learned to help circumnavigate those compulsions and, in turn, the paralyzing perfectionism.


Keep the outline basic

I use basic plotting techniques.

For someone struggling with perfectionism, a detailed outline can feel like a cage. The outline can become a bible instead of a blueprint – stiff and uncompromising. Following the outline begins to feel more important than actually telling the story. 



A basic plot gives enough direction that I know where I’m going but doesn’t trap me into following a narrow path. For me, a synopsis outline is ideal – especially once I break it down into very basic scene descriptions. A few examples from my current project include:

  1. Elodie searches the library for dirt to break her engagement

  2. A Keepers’ raid separates Elodie and Anna

  3. Noah teaches Elodie more about her magic

ALSO: How I Plan My Novels

For a simple guide on how synopsis outlines work, the Free Novel Plan is a great place to start! If you want more detailed advice on scene outlines, The Plotters Almanac and Novel Plotting Academy both have you covered.


Stop editing

Editing as you go can work for people. If you’re reading this article, it isn’t going to work for you, and that’s okay. It doesn’t work for me either.



The easiest way to stop editing as you go is to find a writing method that makes editing as you go a pain in the ass. Some people choose to write by hand, but I use the GoodNotes app. As of January 2024, text doesn’t carry over from one page of a notebook to the next, meaning any edits take a significant amount of reformatting.

If your go-to way of writing makes editing a little too easy, try depending heavily on The Edits Page.


The Edits Page

The Edits Page is a blank page (or two or three) I leave at the beginning of everything I write. When I find something I want to change that is bigger than a typo but smaller than a character arc shift, I note it down on The Edits Page. A few examples from my current project include:

  1.  Use princess less, it’s annoying
  2. Stop writing tired. Chapter two makes sense, but barely.

The purpose of The Edits Page is to create a to-do list for your second draft



Integration pages

Raise your hand if a character you intended to be a minor, barely named character was suddenly so endearing – or so troublesome – that you decided to give them a bigger role and an earlier introduction or if you managed to catch an accidental plot hole while writing Chapter Twenty-Two and filling it in means altering literally everything.


Just me?


Integration Pages are for keeping track of these big, plot-altering changes and giving yourself permission to keep writing as if those changes had already happened.

I include Integration Pages every three to five chapters when I write. The top of every Integration Page reads, “Subsequent chapters will be written as if the following had happened in previous chapters:” and then I just list out the plot changes that I want integrated into the story moving forward.

Integration Pages are significantly longer and more detailed than The Edits Page and usually involve major character or plot changes instead of grammatical or stylistic changes.


Use a move-along phrase

As seen at the beginning of the article, there are times I get stuck. I’m left either staring at a blinking cursor or writing and deleting and writing and deleting and writing and deleting. My weakness is transitions (again, as seen at the beginning of the article), but yours may be action scenes or passing time or professional jargon.

Wherever you get stuck, there comes a time when you just need to move along.



Moments like this are when I use a Move-along Phrase or a basic summary of what should be there to remind myself when I come back to it in my second draft. Using the examples above, a Move-along Phrase could look like:

  1. Characters get from Point A to Point B

  2. Characters fight with swords, and Mac’s hand is cut off

  3. Three days pass
  4. Lawyer talk goes here


Let it go

Look, sometimes it’s okay to let the perfectionism win.

Sometimes, it’s okay to delete the paragraph you just wrote because you don’t like how it sounds. Sometimes it’s okay to add an action sentence when you realize your character never put the coffee pot down. Sometimes, it’s okay to feel that if you’re going to start every sentence in a paragraph the same way, then there needs to be exactly three sentences in it.



No plot survives first contact

Your first draft will be imperfect…or incomplete.

Your understanding of your characters and their motivations will change as you write. The soundness of your plot will come into question more than once. Writing a novel is a complicated thing, and your story will outgrow your outline – and often itself – as you write it. And that’s okay.

ALSO: I Finished my First Draft and Broke Down

The point of a first draft is a second draft.



Does your first draft have to be perfect?



How is perfectionism damaging?

Perfectionism leaves you stuck in a loop of self-doubt, and in this endless loop your draft will die a slow death as it repeats the first five chapters over and over and over and over.


What is expected in a first draft?

Words cobbled together into something resembling a plot and a few wobbly character arcs.


Elizabeth Miles
Written for The Plottery

I’m Elizabeth Miles, but you can call me Lizzie! I am a full-time stay-at-home mom and part-time author during breaks from chasing down over-confident toddlers. Mystery, romance, and fantasy are my favorite genres for both reading and writing. You can find me on Instagram (@authorlizziem) and TikTok (@authorlizziemiles)!



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