The Vomit Draft

by M.J. Hearle

In total I spent about seven months writing the first draft of Winter’s Shadow. At least four of those months were wasted. Alright, perhaps ‘wasted’ is a little strong – put it this way, I could have used my time more wisely. I’m not talking about procrastination though lord knows I can procrastinate with the best of them (cleaning is my method of choice, I’m never tidier then when I’m writing), I’m talking about succumbing to that insidious of all temptations – the re-write. ‘Hey, wait a minute,’ I hear you say, ‘Don’t the wise old dudes constantly preach that writing is re-writing?’ They certainly do, and I’m not here to dispute them. Writing is re-writing, there’s no getting around it. However, the kind of re-writing referred to in that maxim is usually begun after a first draft is finished. The trap I fell into, and what I imagine most authors starting out also fall into, is starting my re-write before I’d finished the first page.

I must have written the opening sentence alone at least two hundred times. Maybe more. Not because I’m some kind of perfectionist – though this streak probably made me more susceptible to the re-write demon – I was simply timid. I didn’t trust myself that what I’d written was good enough so spent hours upon hours trying to make it better. After all there’s no point writing the rest of the book if you’re first sentence stinks, right? Wrong. Here’s a simple truism I wish I’d acknowledged back then –


I recently finished going through the galley proofs of Winter’s Shadow and found the experience utterly demoralising. If I had my way I’d go back and easily re-write three quarters of the manuscript but, you know what? It probably still wouldn’t be good enough. Nothing ever is. I’m sure even literary geniuses look over their own work and cringe. If you finish writing something and believe it to be amazing then you’re probably not a very good writer.

Which brings me to the topic at hand – The Vomit Draft. I didn’t coin the term, but here’s what the vomit draft means to me: it’s your first pass at the story. Your first attempt to get down on paper the characters and situations that have been taking up too much mental real estate in your head. It is not the first draft – let me make that clear. Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be a lot cleaner and more fully realised than the vomit draft. The crudity of the vomit draft is its point. You don’t have to worry about grammar, punctuation, spelling, character shading, snappy dialogue, rich descriptions, thematic depth or literary underpinnings. It’s the story in its stickiest, pre-digested form, puked out directly from your brain onto the page.

The idea behind the vomit draft is to stop you second-guessing yourself. Just write the damn thing. Write it as well as you can, but more importantly as fast as you can. Speed is paramount in this process. If you slow down to re-read what you’ve already written then you’re bound to be tempted to fix things, tidy up sentences and before you know it you’ve spent three months re-writing the same passage, over and over again.

Save yourself the hassle. You’ve probably got at least four or five more drafts ahead of you so why agonise over this one? Especially as once you get to the editing stage (if you get to the editing stage) you’ll probably end up deleting or vastly changing the passages you slaved over. This is almost always the case. ‘Kill your babies’ is something else the wise old dudes say.

Until it’s in the bookshelves your novel is a fluid creation. There’s no point approaching the first words you commit as though they’re unchangeable and thus have to be perfect. Words are nothing, if not changeable. You’re their boss, not the other way around.

Of course, some people skip the vomit draft and attempt to jump straight into a first draft. There’s nothing wrong with this if you’re a confident writer. However, if you’re just starting out there’s a good chance this isn’t the case. When I initially sat down in front of my computer I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence. I felt like a charlatan (still do). There was no way I could hope to write as well as my favourite authors, so why try? For this, more than any other reason, the vomit draft is your friend. It represents freedom. Freedom from expectation – the vomit draft isn’t supposed to be good, remember? The freedom to write without worrying too much about writing.  So, what are you waiting for?