Neil Gaiman on How Writers Learn and Why First Drafts Don’t Matter

Neil Gaiman is one of those authors whom I adore reading and cherish studying. I’ve been hooked ever since Neverwhere.

Heralded by many as one of the great writers in modern culture, Gaiman has much to teach us about the attitudes and actions that fuel good writing. It just so happens I recently discovered some of his finest wisdom on the subject, albeit via an unconventional source: The Nerdist Podcast.

The Nerdist Podcast isn’t likely your go-to source for phenomenal writing advice. More like, you listen to The Nerdist Podcast if you enjoy highly witty, often random conversations with talented creatives that near always include crude humor and language (it is a comedy show after all).

Humor aside, the podcasts are gems for usable creative inspiration and intelligence, as the episode featuring Gaiman showcases.

“Do you write everyday? Or do you write just when you’re inspired?”

These questions from co-host Chris Hardwick target the perpetual debate about the source of good writing. Gaiman’s response may surprise you:

If you only write when you’re inspired you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist because you’re going to have to make your word count today and those words aren’t going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not.

You have to write when you’re not inspired. And you have to write the scenes that don’t inspire you. And the weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you just wrote because they had to be written next.

The process of writing can be magical. … Mostly it’s a process of putting one word after another.

As I wrote in this month’s Winning Edits Dispatch, novelists certainly should heed this wisdom. But I think it’s portable to all forms of writing today, including serialized fiction, longform journalism, and blog articles.

Odds are good that you’re a writer in pursuit of a great body of work. Whether that manifests as a singular novel or not, the rhythm of “one word after another” is universal and paramount.

The nature of this advice speaks irrevocably of process, which is where Hardwick probed next…

“How do you break through the wall? You know, like THE wall?”

In response, Gaiman revealed a powerful writing frame of mind:

For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important.

One way you get through the wall is by convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter. No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you may be agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed. …

For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.

Easy to say; hard to do. But quite profound nonetheless for the attitudes it underscores: patience with the process, persistence with the concept, and faith in the outcome. Lacking these virtues, writers risk breaking upon the wall, never to return to their incomplete manuscript. In all, these behaviors amplify continuous learning, a responsibility that Gaiman encourages of all writers:

When people come to me and say, ‘I want to be a writer. What should I do?’, I say, ‘You have to write.’ And sometimes they say, ‘I’m already doing that. What else should I do?’ I say, ‘You have to finish things.’ Because that’s where you learn from; you learn by finishing things.

Gaiman’s advice throughout is music to the ears of editors, producers and publishers because it supports the merits of all serious professionals of language. From agents to editors, from writers to reporters, patient persistence remains a most honorable trait and – in our age of impatience – a most palpable advantage.

Programming note: skip to the final eight-ish minutes of Gaiman’s Nerdist Podcast if you dislike copious nerdery and wish simply to get to the heart of the matter.

Shout-out: kudos to the fabulous Mindy Holahan, Winning Edits’ nerd almighty and social geekologist, for introducing me to The Nerdist Podcast.

  • http://www.storysimplicity.com/ Tina

    Great article, thank you. I really like the ‘go do it’ attitude of this post. ‘You learn by finishing things’ is going to be my motto for today!

    I’d just like to add that to break through the wall and to write when you are not inspired, I think you need one vital thing – 100% commitment to writing your novel!

    • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

      Commitment is very important. Discipline is part and parcel with that attitude. Combined, they are an unstoppable force.

      Thanks Tina for commenting. Glad you enjoyed the article!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HHXLO4JPVK5UTPTPA6KK2PWF5U colleenp

    so if I show this to people who only write when inspired, but brag about being so great, and how “one day soon” they’ll have everything one would want. am I a bully? the “I’m going to be a famous comic artist, I put out a page a month. I don’t know what do do next”

    I just see now I’m never going to be cut out for anything. because snippits of ideas just randomly float around in a chaotic manner. I also lack the notion of using words. Like how some people’s bodies cannot make insulin.

    then I think “ah, why not just have a mangled story with multiple writers, like how people do TV episodes. just think of a chapter as an episode”.

    I can’t force it. therefor I am not creative.

    on the plus side, neither are the others.

    • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

      It sounds like a creative process/system would help you, Colleen. All creatives–writers, artists, comics, etc.–struggle with the connecting the dots between their ideas. If you’re committed to implementing a rhythm, then you can certainly improve in this area.

      Good luck!

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  • Marielle A Lien

    Great advice there. ‘You learn by finishing things’..

    • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

      Absolutely! Learning is incomplete if the work is incomplete.

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  • Nora

    So much truth, he speaks! Finishing something–even when you’ve already decided it sucks and is no good–is the thing that will really make it for you. I’m about 2 chapters away from the end of my current draft, and I just cannot get there…but here’s to breaking through THE wall!

    • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

      Good luck breaking through that wall, Nora! Always keep moving forward :)

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  • Quatrain

    Gaiman is a mediocre hack. Everything he writes reads like a first draft. He writes plotless, passive characters who are decidedly lacking an ethical compass. Gaiman writes like he’s trying to imitate human emotions but doesn’t understand them. His advice is trite and empty from a man who hasn’t mastered himself let alone the English language.

    • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

      That’s an interesting analysis. To me, I find Gaiman’s work and advice compelling. I’d be interested to know more why you disagree with his style and line of thinking on writing.

    • mad

      wow, i didn’t know that Gaiman is a psycho writer… seriously, Gaiman detractors need to develop their arguments a little more

    • Jestress

      Plotless? I get the “passive” part, I guess, but plotless? The very thing I like about his stuff is that it’s original in plot. I myself am stuck inside the box of doing the same linear “plot”-steps that every piece of fiction out there has; so to me his writing is like a breadth of fresh air. Just because it doesn’t flow in the exact same way as everything else (I blame many online articles for encouraging that style, actually) doesn’t mean it’s not good. On the contrary.

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  • Jarrod

    I just stumbled upon this article, and would like to express my sincere appreciation for the advice presented in it. I ignored my dream of becoming a writer for the longest time just so I could pursue the American Dream of a stable career, home, etc. It wasn’t until I was let go from an IT position after a company merger that I found the time–however unfortunate it is that I found the time–to finally pursue my dream.

    I am 30 years old and am finding myself relearning how to become a writer. My biggest problem is sticking with the project and breaking through “the wall”. Thank you for the reminder that I just need to continue writing and not give regardless of how bad the first draft is.

    • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

      Hi Jarrod,

      I’m very glad enjoyed this article and are able to reap some usable inspiration from it. I gather Gaimen would be very happy with that. Keep pressing forward with your writing—it can open up a lot of amazing (and previously unseen) opportunities.

      Good luck!

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