The First Draft of Anything is . . . (another questionable writing quote from Hemingway)

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This post is about first drafts, certainly.

It’s also about the reliability of long-accepted quotes from dead people. A while back, I wrote a post titled Write Drunk, Edit Sober (good bad advice on how to tap your creativity like a keg). The “write drunk, edit sober” quote has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway for decades, because he has a deserved reputation as a writing and drinking man.

The thing is: there’s no proof that he ever wrote, or said, such a thing. In fact, Hemingway always wrote when he was sober and began drinking after the day’s work was done. If he was the originator of the phrase, he didn’t follow his own advice.

I had seen the “Write Drunk, Edit Sober” quote on t-shirts and coffee mugs, on inspirational posters and memes directed at writers. I never questioned the attribution of the quote until I wrote my post and began researching the advice. At the wonderful website Quote Investigator, I discovered that the earliest printed appearance of something similar to this quote was in a novel published three years after Hemingway’s death. It was something said by a fictional writer.

I’ve been reading Screenwriting for Dummies, by Laura Schellhardt, as a way to expand my concept of storytelling. Many of my favorite fiction authors—Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Donald E. Westlake, William Faulkner, Ray Bradbury: to name just a few—turned their hand to writing screenplays at some point. It’s a valid form of storytelling with its own rules, conventions and limitations. Since I enjoy movies and television series as my primary source of entertainment, this was a logical creative avenue for me to explore. I’ve read a lot of books during my lifetime, but I know, without attempting to calculate totals, that I’ve seen more movies and television episodes. Perhaps orders of magnitude more.

Ms. Schellhardt, in Chapter 17 of her text, wrote the following sentence:

Ernest Hemingway once said that the first draft of anything is garbage. His language was more colorful than that, but the sentiment remains the same.”

I stored this information away for later use. I had been thinking about writing a post about first drafts for some time, and I thought that this purported Hemingway quote could be a good jumping-off point.

The actual quote, as I’ve always read it, was:

The first draft of anything is shit.”

Pardon my Anglo-Saxon. This quote is direct, succinct, and slightly dangerous. It sounds like Hemingway.

what’s that smell?

Because I’ve never learned to leave well enough alone, I researched the quote at the Quote Investigator website. To give proper attribution, it was necessary to find out where the quote first appeared.

It turns out that the first published evidence of this quote was in 1984, twenty-three years after Hemingway’s death. The story is that, in 1934, a twenty-two-year-old Arnold Samuelson—a Hemingway fan—journeyed to Key West, Florida, to meet the author. He ended up working as Hemingway’s deck hand on his fishing boat Pilar for ten months. Samuelson wrote a manuscript recording his experiences, but it wouldn’t be published until after his death in 1981, when Samuelson’s sister discovered the manuscript among her brother’s personal effects.

The excerpt from With Hemingway: a year in Key West and Cuba that contains the quote follows. It was advice purportedly given to the aspiring writer Samuelson by Papa himself.

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.

Keep in mind that neither Samuelson nor Hemingway were around to validate this quote when it was posthumously published. Did Hemingway actually say any of this? It kind of sounds like him. Should the quote be attributed to Samuelson instead, a person I never heard of before today? Would that even be accurate? Perhaps this version didn’t exist at all until Samuelson’s manuscript was edited after his death.

If anyone knows, they aren’t talking.

I’m willing to accept the quote as Hemingway’s because it really doesn’t matter what I believe. I am reminded that Socrates and Jesus of Nazareth never actually wrote any of the quotes attributed to them either. We can thank Plato and several early Christians (perhaps some apostles, though that’s in doubt) instead.

Now that the distraction of attribution is past us, let’s talk about the statement itself. Are all first drafts of anything so bad that they deserve to be compared to excrement?

I can speak only for my own first drafts. Perhaps your first drafts spring from your head, like Athena from the brow of Zeus, perfectly formed and beautiful. Mine tend to be a disorganized affair of descriptions and snatches of dialogue in search of a story, prone to subplots and tangents that spin off in directions no one—including the author—wants to travel. When I have achieved Flow, the words pour forth in a magical cascade, like a rocket sled going down a steep hill, where metaphors don’t mind being mixed and adverbs swish their tails like angry cats.

Still, I think there is beauty to be found in chaotic creativity, which is what I believe a first draft should be. The value of the Hemingwayesque quote is not that it is a condemnation of first drafts. No, not at all. Instead, it is permission to allow your first draft to be a hot mess. It’s writing without a net, not allowing your internal editor to stay your hand while you’re in the process of creation.

Better writers than I have promoted writing your first draft as quickly as you can, without worrying about structure or grammar or spelling. Your job, as a writer, is to get your story down on the page (or screen).

One of my favorite aphorisms when I was a manager of people and resources was: A plan gives you something to deviate from.

That’s what a first draft is—a plan. Your first draft is the truly artistic part of the writing task. Rewriting, while not wholly un-artistic, is more dependent on craft. First drafts are largely about play. Subsequent drafts are about work.

If you’re anything like me, and smart money says most of you are, you get more enjoyment out of playing than working, but understand that both are necessary.

Stephen King and Peter Straub have co-written a couple of novels during their careers. I remember reading interviews with the authors, in which they discussed their differences as writers. Straub enjoyed the rewriting process more than King did, if I’m remembering this correctly. It’s easy to imagine King hunched over his computer keyboard, cackling like a madman as his long, white fingers clacked feverishly over the keys, spinning his imaginative stories. Meanwhile, Peter Straub wrote his initial drafts in longhand, a more deliberate process. I may be wrong about this (so don’t quote me until you verify), but I believe that Straub is more of a plotter, while King is infamously a pantser.

These two famous authors are great examples of that art/craft dichotomy, that creative melding of the Dionysian and the Apollonian.

There are brilliant gemstones to be mined in first drafts. Rewriting or editing—that left-brained portion of the process—polishes, cuts and displays the gems in the best light.

The real lesson to be learned from the quote is that you should go forth and sin boldly in your writing, unconcerned about its ultimate worth as you begin. You are creating the wire frame upon which your finished story will eventually be sculpted.

Is your first draft garbage? Quite possibly. Add it to the compost pile and use it later to grow something more beautiful.

Photo by Jonas Kakaroto on

I have a first draft of a novel written more than a decade ago around here somewhere. It’s working title was Late September, and it is a murder mystery/thriller with a female lead (my first). I’ve always heard you should put your first drafts away for a while before you begin your rewrites. Somehow “a while” turned into double-digit years. I keep thinking about the novel and know I should give it at least one more pass.

There just always seems to be other things to do. Things that are more fun.

I really need a Maxwell Perkins.

You see, Perkins was a famous editor back in Hemingway’s day . . .

2 thoughts on “The First Draft of Anything is . . . (another questionable writing quote from Hemingway)

  1. Great points here. Writing without self-judgement is a tough thing to do indeed, but ironically, every time I enter that mindset, I find that I produce much better work than when I try to be cautious. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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