First Draft Syndrome: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatments

Here’s something all writers are familiar with. Other artists too, now that I think of it. When you look at the title, what do you think? First Draft Syndrome (FDS) is now an official medical diagnosis, because I say it is!

Reading an affected First Draft can cause the following symptoms:

  • In the writer
    • Feelings of being a failure
    • Disbelief, A.K.A. “Did I write that?
    • Feelings of hopelessness, of not knowing what treatments to seek
    • Low self-esteem
    • Feelings of never improving
    • Difficulty focusing on anything other than the affected work(s)
  • In an editor
    • Feelings of hopelessness (“Where do I begin?”)
    • Painful psychosomatic spasms
    • Acute stress
    • New or worsening procrastination
    • Missed deadline(s)
    • Feelings of aggression or dislike toward the author
  • In an independent reader
    • Acute secondhand embarrassment
    • Disgust
    • A desire to put the book down
    • A bizarre fascination with the work that may result in not putting the book down
    • If the reader is particularly easily influenced: increases the likelihood of the reader later producing works affected similarly by FDS

If these symptoms concern you, or you believe that material produced by yourself or a loved one may be affected by FDS, this article may be able to help. It is normal to experience feelings of shock, dismay, lowered self-esteem, etc. immediately after producing or reading a work affected with FDS. Do not punish yourself or a loved one for these feelings. In order to progress, these feelings must be worked through and processed in a healthy manner.

Diagnosis can be easily performed at home. If a particular artistic work produces more than one of the above symptoms, chances are that the work suffers from FDS. Not to worry; in the majority of cases, the severity of the illness lowers with each subsequent draft produced and read/edited.

In order to promote the production of additional drafts, Doctors recommend taking a break from the affected work, and whichever artistic skill produced it. For example, when writing an affected First Draft of a story, it is not recommended to immediately switch over to writing a non-affected story. Pursuing alternate hobbies, spending time with loved ones, or even just going for walks are all proven to help move past the initial negative feelings associated with FDS.

After the affected work has been seen by all editors/beta-readers involved, and the author/artist feels prepared to seek treatment, it is recommended that the author begins slowly.

As in any large-scale project, it is best to break the project into pieces. If the author has not already done so, I recommend using yWriter, Scrivener (available on the app store), or a similar program that allows the author to split the work into individual chunks, i.e. chapters and scenes. Saving each chapter/scene as a separate document using a program such as Notepad or Microsoft Word, while complicated and not recommended, is acceptable if an alternate program is unavailable.

With the affected story broken into smaller pieces, each step of recovery should not seem like such a great mountain to climb. This author recommends labelling each chapter and scene edited with an X in the chapter/scene name, with an additional X for every additional read-through and edit. For example: after finishing the first round of editing, each scene had one X by it. Chapter 1 Scene 1 X, Chapter 1 Scene 2 X, and so on. A second X was added after the first round of editing, changing each scene name into Chapter 1 Scene 1 XX, and so on. These are just recommendations meant to make the editing process easier to handle.

By breaking a story into small, manageable pieces, and working through it at a reasonable pace, the author should see significant improvement within a manner of days. A 120,000 word novel might have completed 1 round of editing in a week or less, depending on the author’s writing speed.

With each subsequent edit, the author and any editors/readers should notice immediate improvements to the work’s status. Symptoms should lift after the first edit.

It is possible that, with time and additional stories finished and edited, the First Drafts of future stories will not be so severe, though this is not a given.

This author wishes all other authors luck with their symptoms, and with lifting the curse of the First Draft. With time and effort, we can eliminate FDS. We just have to dedicate ourselves to ensuring our stories are not contagious before publishing them online like many other affected works in the so-called recent “Tsunami of Crap.”

(So, how do you like my doctor speak? I’d like to thank WebMD and similar medical sites for my speech patterns. I’m still working on my first book, but it may not be out by Christmas. I’m still hoping for 2016, and I’ll be working on it, but this is taking a lot longer than I thought. Thank you for your patience.)


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