First drafts

First draft writing: 7 steps to an easier draft

First draft writing is hard, because you’re still finding how your story fits together. Try a few (or all) of these 7 steps to simplify and organize your draft so you can get version one of your story down:

First draft writing is hard, because you’re still finding how your story fits together. Try a few (or all) of these 7 steps to simplify and organize your draft so you can get version one of your story down:

1. Schedule dedicated writing sessions

If you seldom create plans and schedules, start with a schedule for a small span of time. Set achievable goals. Plan to write three times over the next two weeks, for example.

When you create a writing plan and do your best to stick to it:

  • You stay focused on your writing goals
  • You get blocked less easily as you’re in the flow of writing, week to week, and can pick up where you left off easier
  • Writing regularly trains your unconscious mind to find story ideas (as this article on Medium describes) and scenario solutions in the background while you aren’t actively writing

4 quick steps to create your next few weeks’ schedule:

  1. Sign up for a free digital calendar with reminders 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. You’ll receive a convenient push notification if you link Google Calendar on your phone.
  4. Show up: Only reschedule your writing sessions if you absolutely have to.

Only by creating consistent routine can we tackle mammoth, ongoing tasks such as writing novels.

2. Divide your task into easy chunks to a deadline

Planning a novel in easy units such as scenes is helpful. Having a scene summary for each core event in your story helps to keep each scene focused on its most relevant elements.

Example of how to split up writing your first draft

  1. Work out your approximate word count (Writer’s Digest suggests a word count of 80 000 to 100 000 words for commercial or literary fiction)
  2. Divide your word 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 to your finished first draft – this is entirely manageable!
  3. 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).
  4. 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 conducted 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. Specify your aims at the start of every writing session

Writing a first draft is easier when we think a little ahead as we draft, to what we need each scene to do. When you sit down for a scheduled writing session:

  1. Write a heading to remind yourself of what part of your draft you’ll work on today (e.g. ‘First Scene – Sarah’s Trip Preparation’).
  2. Write down your core character, setting and plot objectives for this writing session (Example: ‘Introduce protagonist and set up her anticipation (and anxieties) about her trip to South America’.)
  3. If, as you’re writing, inspiration takes the story in a different direction, add a note to your header information including any changes to your original goals for the scene.

Identifying the purpose of each scene in this way will help you keep your first draft focused on key story scenarios.

Use the Scene Builder in the Now Novel dashboard to create scene by scene summaries and group and arrange them into chapters to add to your story outline.

Now Novel Scene Builder Tool - Writing Tools | Now Novel
The Scene Builder

4. Avoid self-editing as you go

It’s natural to want every line of your prose to sing. 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 until it’s ready to submit to publishers. 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. Jot down basic research without allowing distraction

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). Leave a mark in the text that will tell you to expand with the right facts later.

Keep research using an organized tool. 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.

Writing procrastination quote - Markus Zusak | Now Novel

6. Try different writing productivity techniques

In a survey we ran, blog readers reported ‘lack of focus’ as one of the biggest challenges to finishing a novel.

Besides breaking first draft writing into manageable units, try techniques aimed to help you stay productive.

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 unit or section of your first draft).
  2. You set a timer for a fairly short duration (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.

7. Write wherever, whenever you can

You might have read 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.

Try dictating parts in the voice recorder on your phone, or writing short text messages. You could create a private group for just yourself in a messenger app and send yourself brief notes whenever a phrase or image pops into your head. Treating creation as play and a game helps to avoid the self-applied pressure that becomes writer’s block.

Get hands-on pro help turning your first pages or chapters into an effective draft when you work with a writing coach.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

4 replies on “First draft writing: 7 steps to an easier draft”

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.

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