The Headphones Theory: Why You Should Save Your First Draft

The Headphones Theory: Why You Should Save Your Early Drafts

My running ritual is to pull on a coordinated running outfit, tie on my running shoes, slather on sunscreen, hook up my headphones and hit the trail.

And, of course, press play.

But a mile into my run, the music blasting from my iPod quickly sounded off. This wasn’t the original song I bought and I was certain that I didn’t download its remix.

My headphones were broken—and I had another 40 minutes to go.

When my headphones break, the song imitates a karaoke track. The main vocals faintly echo the lyrics while guitars and drums take center stage.

In other words, the track gets a bit ugly.

These unintentional remixes reminded me of writing first drafts. These songs were unpolished. These songs were missing key instrumental chords or bass. These songs were never meant to be heard this way.

Same thing with Draft One. The story is mostly word vomit, my hasty attempt to get all my ideas on paper. The story isn’t consistent in tone, character development or plot development. The story at this stage is meant to hide at the bottom of a drawer beneath the heaviest of books.

We feel this way because the story is missing a layer—the editing layer.

Editing is where we fine-tune. That’s when you weave in symbolism and foreshadowing. That’s when you tweak the dialogue or add in coherent chunks of description to fill in those story gaps. That’s where you tie your story up, red bow and all.

And, whenever necessary, add a guitar solo.

By Mile Three, I was studying the pros and cons of these unintentionally remixed tunes. There were many cringe-worthy notes by the lead singer once covered up by loud beats. One rock song even featured chimes that definitely didn’t belong.

But then, out of the blue, a background vocalist will sing with raw emotion that I couldn’t hear above the noise—and it’s beautiful.

So, why all the noise to cover it up?

Sometimes we think that editing will solve all our problems. Once we give ourselves permission to use that red pen, we cross out and scribble over words for the sake of creating something better.

What if we got it right the first time?

That’s why your first draft need to crawl out from its hiding place. Read over your first attempt. Yes, this will be brutally painful. You will shake your head. You will curse yourself. You will wonder why you ever thought writing was your thing.

That is, until you find that one beautiful phrase. You forgot that you wanted your character to feel that way at that particular moment. You crossed out that one important detail that adds value to your character development. You scribbled over that one genius line of dialogue that fills in the missing gaps of that conversation.

Rereading your first draft doesn’t mean undoing all that you deleted. And it definitely doesn’t mean you should read it at an open mic.

Sometimes it takes a fresh read-thru to realize that there was a gem or two not quite ready for the trashcan.

That’s where you’ll find my broken headphones.

What gems have you found in your first draft? Share your treasure find below.


  1. This is a really excellent point to make. I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to read through a first draft without cringing, but one thing I do from time to time is save a separate Word doc called “good phrases” — and I stick in there sentences and descriptions and dialogue from earlier drafts that I really like, but that didn’t make it into the next draft for whatever reason. Then I’ll go back to that doc later on and see if I can work those phrases in, or even save them for future books.

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