First draft writing: 7 tips for simpler, easier drafting

Of all the stages of writing a novel, first draft writing is often most challenging. Because your novel is still a blank canvas, structuring your writing process can be tricky. Here are seven tips on draft writing that will make it easier to speed along to a complete first draft:

1. Be disciplined about sticking to scheduled writing sessions

If you’re typically a pantser, you might not usually create schedules for your writing time. But it pays to schedule writing sessions for multiple reasons:

  • You stay focused on your writing goals
  • Keeping a regular schedule helps to prevent writer’s block by encouraging the unconscious mind to sift through thoughts and experiences for story material

Here’s how to set up a writing schedule for first draft writing:

  1. Sign up for a digital schedule creator  such as Google Calendar.
  2. Find a few weekly slots, if possible, that you can dedicate to writing sessions and use a dedicated colour in your calendar for these to contrast with other scheduled day-to-day tasks.
  3. Set up notifications for writing sessions linked to your calendar entries, so that you will receive a reminder for each writing ‘appointment’.
  4. Show up: Don’t let your first draft be stood up and only reschedule your writing sessions if you absolutely have to.

Because a large part of successfully completing a novel is routine and commitment, keeping a fairly fixed schedule will help you make progress.

2. Create a deadline and divide your task into manageable, exciting units

A common mistake that writers of all experience levels make is trying to write a novel as a single block of text from start to finish. This is possible, but the task is so much easier (and you see your progress so much more clearly) when you divide the task into target word counts and sections.

To optimize your first draft writing:

    1. Work out your approximate word count (Writer’s Digest suggests a reasonable word count range for commercial or literary fiction is between 80 000 to 100 000 words)
    2. Divide this count between the number of days you have to finish your novel (If you have a year to write a shorter novel, 80 000 divided by 365 means just 219 words per day – this is entirely manageable!)
    3. Consider that the average word count per page of a trade paperback is 350-400 words and a chapter might be anywhere between a page to seven or more pages. It thus can take you between two to twelve days per chapter to write a rough draft.
    4. Note in your schedule which weeks you’ll spend working on which chapter (you don’t necessarily have to write them in the order they will appear in your book – if you have a great closing chapter idea and have your outline for the preceding story, write this first if you wish).
    5. Make sure each story unit you’ll be working on excites you in some way – it could be that one section will feature a gripping showdown between protagonist and villain, while another will give you a chance to bring intriguing research you’ve undertaken into your story.

Once you’ve set a deadline for your first draft and have a clear idea of how many words you’ll be writing per week you can start drafting in earnest:

3. Outline your aims at the start of every writing session

Often we start writing and just see where the scene we’re working on will take us. This is a valid approach, but if you’re serious about making progress quickly have a plan for every writing session. When you sit down to write:

    1. Write a heading to remind yourself of what part of your draft you’ll work on for this session (e.g. ‘Chapter 1 – first half’).
    2. Write down your core character, setting and plot objectives for this writing session (Example: ‘Introduce protagonist and set up the scene that initiates her journey. A small village on the edge of a forest – isolated and vulnerable. An eerie visitor comes to town.).
    3. If, as you’re writing, inspiration takes the story in a different direction, add a note to your header information including any changes so that you can still see at a glance what this section of the book contributes to the overarching story.

A structured approach makes first draft writing easier because you: A) have a specific goal and focus every time you sit down to write and B) have a summary of key elements of each section of your book to refer to when sorting out any structural problems.

4. Faster first draft writing: Limit self-editing as you go

It’s natural to want every line of your prose to sing and every word of dialogue to make your characters feel real. Even so, limit the amount of self-editing you do as you go. It might feel as though this will lengthen the entire process because you’ll have to rewrite more later. Yet it’s easier to make changes and tidy up the text when you have a macro perspective of the full story.

A finished first draft is a tangible story you can work on with an editor and can revise in-between submitting to agents and publishers as you wish. The important thing is to reach that stage where you have more freedom (and material) to revise and refine.

If you need to, use an online app that doesn’t let you go back to edit as you write. Blind Write is an online writing tool that blurs everything you’ve just written as you go, preventing you from editing too much prematurely.

5. Balance any necessary research with forward momentum

A point raised by author Kathy Leonard Czepiel is that wanting to get every factual detail right while you draft can slow you down. Instead, do as Czepiel advises and leave the bulk of research for a later stage. Just find all the basic information you need to set the story in motion. A particularly good piece of advice is to make up factual elements (for example the lie of a real-world setting that you need to describe) and leave a mark in the text that will tell you to expand with the right facts later.

An organised system for keeping all your research at hand will also help to prevent wasting valuable time hunting for information you’ve already spent time locating. Evernote is an information organising tool that lets you clip full articles or sections of pages to a virtual notebook. You can name each notebook according to the kind of information it contains (for example ‘Setting research’) for quick reference.

Once your draft is well underway and you have the structure and the basic research under control, it’s worth finding ways to keep focus strong:

6. Keep your focus strong using an effective productivity technique

In a survey we ran last year, blog readers reported ‘lack of focus’ as one of the biggest challenges stopping them from completing a novel. Besides breaking first draft writing into manageable units, you can increase your focus by using a productive working technique:

The Pomodoro Technique, a time management approach developed by Francesco Cirillo, is one option. It works in six stages:

  1. You decide the task you want to achieve (in your case, completing a story unit of your first draft).
  2. You set a timer for the duration for one session (25-minute working intervals are good because they let you focus without burnout).
  3. You write your unit until the timer runs out, noting any distractions briefly as you go and resuming the task immediately.
  4. When the timer rings, you make a mark on a piece of paper and take a 5 minute break.
  5. You continue this process until you have four marks noted.
  6. Once you have four marks earned, you can take a longer break (up to 30 minutes)

Structuring your process this way helps you to work with time rather than against it. Use a time management and focus technique because it will help you to achieve more with each session and avoid mental exhaustion.

7. Avoid being precious about how and where you do your drafting

This advice comes courtesy of a conversation between authors Kristin Kusek Lewis and Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish. You might often see anecdotes about how ‘X famous author would only write in in a small log cabin’ or’ Y writer only wrote in the bath while listening to recorded whale sounds’. The truth is that fixing your writing productivity to a particular place and environment too strongly can create writer’s block. Instead, make first draft writing an ‘everywhere’ activity. If you’re struggling to write a particular scene, in fact, sometimes moving to another room with a different atmosphere can help you to shift creative gears.

Ready to start writing your first draft? Set yourself the challenge of writing 500 words of your draft every day in Now Novel’s scribble pad.

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  • Natalya Drake

    An accountability partner can be invaluable as well. Someone who you see frequently and can inspire and motivate you, and make sure you’ve actually been writing your draft.

    I also found it helpful if I’m working with Google Docs or Microsoft Word, I change the text to white. That way I can’t see what I wrote so it discourages me from self editing while writing.

    • Good tip, Natalya. Thanks for sharing. Another way to turn off the over-critical editor.

    • Selena

      Such a terrific idea. Thanks Natalya.

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