How to write a first draft: A novel approach

 

how to write a first draft

In learning how to write a first draft, having an effective method is everything. Conventional wisdom says that there are several ways to write the ‘perfect’ first draft, but first drafts are anything but perfect. Writing terrible first drafts is more than inevitable: It’s necessary. Here are several reasons why you should not attempt to write a perfect first draft:

Successful writers create three or more drafts

Some respected authors’ books seem so flawless that it’s hard to imagine them toiling through multiple drafts and revisions. Even when they speak in interviews, they might seem to always have the best-formed phrase ready. In reality, most successful writers create more than one draft – many don’t stop at the first or second draft of their novel.

Write each draft with a different aim in mind, focusing in on different elements of your novel:

  • The first draft of a book is where you create the skeleton for your final novel and get to know your characters. The result is seldom a publishable work, even for experienced writers.
  • The second draft lets you focus at a more microscopic level, tweaking characters’ personalities, plot events, aspects such as pacing, scene order and more.
  • From the third draft onwards you can focus more on polishing the text, revising and cutting scenes where necessary while also paying greater attention to details of language use such as grammar and punctuation.

Learn how to write a first draft minus the crippling perfectionism

It is a common trait for writers to be perfectionists about their work. But if you try write the perfect sentence, the perfect metaphor or the perfect fictional dialogue every time you will set yourself up for writer’s block. Procrastination often goes hand in hand with perfectionism: fear of missteps could leave you finding ways to avoid taking any steps at all. It is wise to always remember the writing advice of the prolific writer Jodi Picoult: You can always edit a bad page; you can’t edit a blank one.

Focusing on small-scale elements can result in a weak larger structure

If you write a first draft by focusing on the smallest details of description and scene-setting, you might find that this microscopic focus leaves a clumsy larger shape for your novel. One of the advantages of intentionally writing a loose, less controlled first draft is that you can put in place basic scaffolding that makes later improvements easier. To use a metaphor: It’s harder to paint and decorate a wall if a wobbly foundation causes it to crack repeatedly.

Here are several small-scale elements you should reserve for later drafts:

  • Details of language use: Unsure whether this compound noun should be hyphenated? Uncertain whether your use of ‘that’ and ‘which’ is correct? Make a small note or place a comment in ‘review’ mode in your word processor and come back to it later.
  • Dialogue refining: Does a conversation feel stilted? Could a heated debate or argument be turned up hotter? Reading dialogue out loud will help you hear better whether your use of it is natural or not, but you can leave this for later drafts.
  • First and last sentences: Don’t worry too much for the time being whether each chapter begins in a gripping way or whether or not each section’s ending will make readers keep reading. If you think of a headline in a newspaper, these are written after the stories they accompany are complete. Having the scope of your first draft in mind will help you craft these key elements in such a way that they either set up the action to come brilliantly or create smooth segues to subsequent scenes.

Why writing terrible first drafts is wise: the ‘closed door’ draft

Acclaimed, bestselling horror, mystery and suspense writer Stephen King calls the first draft the ‘closed door’ draft. ‘Closed door’ meaning that the first draft of a book is for the writer’s eyes only. Of course, sharing parts of your novel in progress with other writers or trusted readers is helpful as it will motivate you and provide valuable feedback. But writing terrible first drafts is normal and early critique providers should keep this in mind.

Even though you might be sharing small sections of your work as you go for support and guidance, resist the temptation to shop your first draft around to literary agencies or publishers. Finishing the first draft of a book is worth celebrating. Nevertheless it is important to wait and revise and polish what you’ve written so that decision-makers such as agents or publishers can see your work in the best possible light.

Giving yourself license to write a bad first draft avoids unproductive comparisons

We look at examples of published fiction by our favourite writers and our own efforts seem paltry in comparison. Even when we understand that this is a writer’s final draft, worked over multiple times, we compare our own work to these polished end results. However, very few writers actually produce strong first drafts. Hemingway rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 37 times. Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, famously wrote about the necessity of producing “shitty first drafts.”

Even knowing these facts often doesn’t help writers struggling to finish a first draft. In those cases, it’s necessary to come up with strategies to break through this block and push forward.

Writing terrible first drafts provides necessary freedom

Some people call the first version of a novel a ‘discovery draft’. Sometimes it can help to think of the first pass as a pre-first draft. As best-selling author Neil Gaiman recommends, tell yourself that the first draft doesn’t matter. If you aren’t really writing the book, then it’s okay for large parts of it to be terrible. Thinking of the first pass in this way can free you up to move on from a passage with a note to yourself like ‘Gilbert discovers his true parentage here’ or simply ‘fight scene.’ Don’t get too bogged down on scenes that are giving you trouble; try to write them, and if they aren’t working, move on and revisit them later.

A free approach to writing first drafts avoids anxious looking back

As you continue writing, you will probably find elements of the story (such as plot, characterisation, setting or dialogue) changing. It’s likely that these will change in ways that make some of what you’ve written earlier irrelevant or contradictory. At this point, the temptation will be strong to back up and fix those parts of the novel before you can go forward. It will begin to seem almost like a necessity. How can you carry on when you know those pages need to be rewritten?

forwardAt this stage, you simply need to focus on moving forward rather than looking back. The problem with going back is that it is all too easy to find yourself doing so in an endless, obsessive loop, forever fixing problems and never really moving ahead with the story. Furthermore, no matter how much tinkering you do on your first draft, there’s a good chance you will make substantial changes in subsequent revisions anyway. In that case, all that work and rewriting will be wasted.

Giving yourself greater license prevents the ‘saggy middle’

The middle of the book is a danger zone for writers at every stage of their careers. The initial excitement of the idea for the novel may have departed by this point. You might feel that the end is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, no matter what the book is about, it suddenly begins to seem like the dullest and most derivative novel anyone has ever written. Here again, the temptation will be to go back and rewrite from the beginning in an attempt to ‘save’ the book. Again, it’s important to push forward with the terrible first draft and remember that any single element you don’t completely love now can be refined when your start revising.

The important thing to remember about writing a first draft is that without one, terrible or not, you have nothing to work with. Once you have the story down on paper, you can change it to your heart’s content. No one need ever see that terrible first draft. However terrible it is, it is the scaffolding on which you will build your novel, a novel which will improve and become more and more publishable with subsequent drafts.

Become a productive writer: Get help finishing a first draft and making a dent in your novel now.

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  • I’m in the middle of a terrible first draft now. And it’s killing me (my day job is as a marketing writer and editor, so I love to edit). But one of my critique partners keeps telling me, “Just write it!” So I am. I will say that I’m way farther along than I thought I’d be–in fact, I’m getting to that stage you mention, where I’m feeling restless and thinking it’s crap, but I’m “Just writing it!”

    Thanks for a great post, and a button I’m going to print off and place where I can see it to remind me to plow ahead for the moment, not look back.

  • brendanmc

    Great to hear you’re ploughing ahead Linda. Keep going! (and let us know how it pans out)

  • I try very hard not to. I get the reasoning behind it, but I found a very bad habit to get into because it encourages poor writing. I wound up doing about five times more revision than if I took a little more time and did the the first draft properly.

  • Deborah

    I. Needed. This. Post.

    I’m in that sloggy middle part of a (terrible) first draft. The first 20,000 words became my Verdun. I fought over the same 10 square miles with bunches of rewrites and couldn’t drop the tug-o’-war rope. I finally pushed on and am at the 68,000-word mark. What broke the cycle was boredom. I got so tired of those initial pages, I just moved on. Now, I’m at the point where I question the value of what I’ve written so far. I refuse to not finish, and I’m hanging my hopes on the rewrites. I’m also looking forward to working with a painted canvas instead of a blank one. Seems much more fun to revamp and play around with what’s there than to put it there in the first place (although that is its own kind of joy).

    This post came at the right time. I was beginning to limp. It helps to be reminded that this is hard.

  • Kimbus

    We all have our inclinations to battle with, don’t we? Those of us like Linda F who write / edit tight copy for a living can end up writing ourselves into a death spiral. I’m forcing myself to write out my story subject, verb, object until I feel inspired again. I know it will come. It’s just a bit depressing in the meantime. So I was heartened to read Neil Gaiman’s advice about writing a note in place of a scene that won’t come and then moving on. That’s the way (for me) to do it!

  • These comments make me so happy! It can seem like everyone else is writing magical first drafts sometimes, can’t it?
    Keep going! You guys can do it!!

  • Pablo

    “write drunk, edit sober”

    Hemingway.

    • brendanmc

      Great theory Pablo, I’m not sure if it works for everyone 🙂

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  • sandra boe

    Writing a first draft should be playful. This is creative time — pour it out, have fun! This the time of discovery. Craft comes later, with the revision process. I have three Novels in various stages. It always amazes me when I go back to look at what I’ve written. I go from palm plants of OMG what was I thinking….to WOW this is pretty good stuff! It’s okay — pour it out! Spill your guts! And for heaven’s sake, don’t hold anything back! Don’t save something for another story or another time! As a mentor once told me — vomit on the page! You can clean the mess up later!

    • brendanmc

      I’ll remember the last line Sandra, its a keeper 🙂

  • Laurence Almand

    Good article. Yes, many best selling authors have rewritten their works many times. Margaret Mitchell is said to have rewritten the first chapter of GONE WITH THE WIND more than 20 times until she got it right. Many best sellers have gone through 5 or 6 revisions – or more.
    The old saying “You can’t edit daydreams” is certainly true.
    No matter how bad the first draft is (and it probably will be) get it down on paper so you have something to work with.

    • Great fact about Margaret Mitchell, didn’t know that. Completely agree, Laurence. It’s better to give yourself licence to be bad and write and re-write with that latitude rather than let high expectations paralyze your creativity. It is a challenge for writers who are more self-critical.

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