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Writing first drafts: 7 tips to get it done

Writing first drafts is a stage of the writing process many authors find daunting. Read 7 tips for first drafts from writers and get your first draft done:

Writing first drafts is a stage of the writing process many authors find daunting. Read 7 tips for first drafts from writers and get your first draft done:

1. Find your most comfortable method

There’s no single approach to writing a first draft. Take, for example, the highly specific process Italo Calvino describes to The Paris Review:

My pages are always covered with canceling lines and revisions. There was a time when I made a number of handwritten drafts. Now, after the first draft, written by hand and completely scrawled over, I start typing it out, deciphering as I go. When I finally reread the typescript, I discover an entirely different text that I often revise further. Then I make more corrections. On each page I try first to make my corrections with a typewriter; I then correct some more by hand.

Italo Calvino, in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 130’, interviewed by William Weaver, Damien Pettigrew. Available here.

Many authors prefer not to draft like Calvino, preferring to leave corrections and revisions until the entire draft is complete.

Which method you choose depends on what you feel comfortable with.

Does reviewing and making corrections as you go discourage you, or make you doubt what you’ve written? Turn your font colour to match your page background (typically, white) so that you can’t edit as you go. Change the colour back only before saving your document until the next writing session.

This is one simple method to force yourself to keep going rather than correcting continuously.

2. Try creative approaches to capture ideas

A first draft gives you great freedom to try other ways of organizing and teasing out ideas.

Vladimir Nabokov is famous for writing drafts on numbered index cards he could then move around and reshuffle into different sequences. This helped him unlock different pathways and combinations of scenes for the narrative.

Günter Grass, the German author, poet, illustrator and graphic artist described drawing as integral to writing his first drafts:

The first version of The Rat is in a large book of unlined paper, which I got from my printer. When one of my books is about to be published I always ask for one blind copy with blank pages to use for the next manuscript. So, these days the first version is written by hand with drawings and then the second and the third are done on a typewriter. I have never finished a book without writing three versions. Usually there are four with many corrections.

Günter Grass in ‘The Art of Fiction no. 124’, interviewed by Elizabeth Gaffney, available here.

Combine drawn sketches timelines, character profiles, setting summaries and any other process work you need to use to make the pieces of your story come together in your mind’s eye.

[You can also brainstorm and develop ideas in easy steps in our story dashboard.]

Writing first drafts - quote by Jennifer Egan | Now Novel

3. Set realistic expectations

It’s difficult to keep soldiering through a process that takes much longer than you expect because the task ahead may start to feel overwhelming.

Although challenges to write a book in 30 days like NaNoWriMo are fun, the truth is the average first draft takes much longer. Says Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl):

I get really tense during the first draft. Really tense. That’s not great for my family, because the first draft usually takes about a year.

Gillian Flynn, ‘The Gone Girl phenomenon: Gillian Flynn speaks out’ for The Guardian.

To keep expectations of yourself you can meet while you draft, set a timer. Time each writing session until you finish a chapter’s draft. Take the word count and the time it took to reach, and multiply this to get an estimate of how long it would take to reach 80, 000 words (the approximate word count of a full-length novel).

Checking in on your process like this helps to keep realistic expectations which in turn helps you create realistic goals you are capable of reaching.

4. Pick a focus for your draft

Drafting with purpose is helpful to maintain the feeling that you are getting closer to the finish line.

Choosing a focus for your draft (whether it’s solving a single character’s arc or getting your research correct) will help make the work you do on your first draft valuable. Australian author Colleen McCullough (whose The Thorn Birds sold over 30 million copies) described choosing a focus for her drafts thus:

Once I’ve got the first draft down on paper then I do five or six more drafts, the last two of which will be polishing drafts. The ones in between will flesh out the characters and maybe I’ll check my research.

Colleen McCullough, quoted by Writer’s Write, available here.

5. Allow your first drafts to be messy

It’s easy to be a perfectionist in any creative discipline. Yet perfectionism can stifle creativity, the unconscious mind. All that pressure makes it hard to produce.

Remember that there are authors who write five or six drafts after the first like McCullough did. You can afford your first draft to be messy, uneven, clichéd in places, weakly styled in others. These are all issues a good editor can help you with.

Jennifer Egan describes the value of allowing yourself a wretched first draft:

The bottom line is that I like my first drafts to be blind, unconscious, messy efforts; that’s what gets me the best material.

Jennifer Egan, quoted in Writing With Quiet Hands: How to Shape Your Writing to Resonate with Readers by Paula Munier.

Infographic - writing first drafts | Now Novel
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6. Get feedback on your draft when you’re ready

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.

King describes the moment he learned this valuable lesson about the writing process in his writing guide On Writing: 

Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it.

Stephen King, On Writing: A memoir of the craft (2000), p. 57.

The idea here is that there are stages where you may need outside input. Yet it’s also important to have done enough groundwork to be ready for others’ opinions and perspectives.

7. Get it written, not right

The purpose of a first draft, ultimately, is to get a version of your story written. Even if it’s a version that falls woefully short (in your eyes) of the ideal mental image you had when you started. This is a common feeling at the end of a first pass at creating. Yet it’s why rewriting (and working with editors) are valuable parts of the writing process.

Writer Matt Hughes puts it thus:

Many first-time novelists end up rewriting their first two or three chapters, trying to get them ‘just right.’ But the point of the first draft is not to get it right; it’s to get it written — so that you’ll have something to work with.

Matt Hughes, quoted by Daphne Gray-Grant here.

What have you found the biggest challenge in working on first drafts? Start outlining your story’s first draft in easy, prompted steps.

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

14 replies on “Writing first drafts: 7 tips to get it done”

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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