Get It Right the First Time

At one time it was popular to criticise the idea of “New and Improved” when referring to ads for laundry soap, cookies, or toothpaste. The sardonic response to this claim was, “Why didn’t they get it right the first time?” Which is really a stupid thing to say. Fortunately, the popularity of this criticism didn’t last very long. Nobody pointed out the fallacy, it just faded away. Like so many things which rouse my ire (better to leave my unroused ire sleeping), it has stayed with me. Get it right the first time doesn’t make any sense.

For example, consider a recipe that has taken you years to perfect. Why didn’t you get it right the first time? Or the computer you are using now. When they started making personal computers (Apple 2 for example), why didn’t they get it right the first time? Or when they upgrade my system, or game, or word processor, why didn’t they —?

Because, of course, you has to start somewhere, do the best you can, and do better as the technology evolves and you gain more experience. If you don’t like upgrades, you can stick with DOS. Or Model T. Or black & white TV on a 6” screen. They did get it right the first time, for what it was then. What you do the first time is your best try, but then you learn from your mistakes, you learn how to do it better, and you move on.

So what does this have to do with writing?

A long time ago, way back in the 1950s, when I was in grade school, teachers would say, “Take out a blue book and pencil. Now, write about what you did over the weekend,” or something like that. After ten minutes or so, the teacher would say, “Pencils down, pass your blue books forward.” And she would grade you on what you had written. The blue books came back, and every least mistake in language, logic, content, spelling, punctuation, whatever, was marked in red. And the more red, the lower the grade.

What we learned back then, was that when we wrote, we had to get it right the first time.

When we got older, and decided to write fiction, we’d try to do that, get it right on the first draft. And when compared our struggling efforts with what we had read in magazines or books, what we had done was terrible. Maybe we couldn’t write after all. Many of us gave it up after a while.

These days it’s different. Students in grade school, at least in the 90s when my daughter was there, were told to first put down an idea, and the class would talk about it. Then they were told to sketch out what they wanted to say, and were helped to put it in outline form. They they wrote a draft, which was marked up, but not graded. They they fixed the mistakes for a final draft.

Which, of course, is how real writers really do it. And real graphic artists, too, if you read the cover articles in ImagineFX. They don’t submit their first drafts, they submit their final drafts. They don’t have some magic talent that lets them get it right the first time. They sketch, rough it out, do a clean draft, revise, edit, and rewrite, as many times as necessary. If the beginning writer could see the first raw sketches and notes and rough drafts of the writers they admire, they would see that maybe their own rough drafts weren’t so bad after all.

Some of the people who take my Writer’s Workshop, when asked to read their exercise, start off by apologizing for how bad it is. They still have the idea that they should get it right the first time. Well, nobody does. Ever. There’s always improvement. Windows 10 is a lot better than Windows 8. Or than DOS of whatever version. Current cell phones are far more powerful than the computers which directed the space program in the sixties. And seventies. My cooking has improved over the last (ahem) years. So has yours.

So, if you’re a beginner, when you sit down to write a story, just remember: do your best, put even the worst down on paper, revise and correct, produce the new and improved version. Then do it again, until it’s as good as you can make it, and then move on to another story. You have to move on, because there can never be a perfect version. Just do the best you can do at the time.

They keep correcting translations of the Bible.


  1. I think I really needed to hear this oh, say, 15 or so years ago. I’ve been working on perfecting a story for at least 20 years now. I’ve had to set it aside as the imperfections of it were driving me insane. I think, now, I will pull it back out and finish it. Thank you, Allen.

    1. That’s so good to hear. Seeing it differently may very well clear up some if not most of those imperfections. At least it has in my experience. Good luck with it, and let me know how it goes.

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