Writing first drafts is the stage of the writing process many authors find daunting. Read ten ideas and strategies to stay focused, reach your writing goals, and make this part of your writing process work for you.
First draft to final draft: 10 ideas to try
The drafting process in writing is the second stage after prewriting (which includes activities such as research and outlining). To take the daunt out of drafting, try:
- Prewriting before writing first drafts
Even if you’re a pantser (finding your way as you go), this may help you find directions and subtopics you hadn’t yet considered.
- Draft stories the way that works for you
Every writer is different (in temperament, working style, commitment load). Explore to find your favorite way.
- Use writing drafts as a kind of prewriting
Have you tried storyboarding, discovery drafts (or ‘draft zero’), or creating scene outlines beforehand to maintain confidence?
- Schedule your drafting sessions
An alarmed reminder to work on your draft may work wonders for disciplined writing. Chunk up tasks, enjoy small wins, repeat.
- Choose a focus for each draft
Writing is rewriting, as they say. Planning the focus of a rewrite (e.g. filling in descriptive detail lacking in version one) may help.
- Avoid common drafting don’ts
In mythology, Orpheus couldn’t look back if he wanted to progress. In writing, stopping to edit often may slow you down.
- Steal moments to draft wherever you can
Waiting somewhere quiet is a chance to make notes towards your final draft in a journal or on your phone.
- Write the messiest first draft you need
Jodi Picoult said, ‘You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’
- Decide when you need feedback to progress
Between writing a draft and a final draft, decide whether you’d like a sense check in editorial review or peer critique.
- Make a checklist for the next stage of process
For the next stage of your writing process after drafting (revision), try making a checklist to guide changes.
Let’s explore how to write a first draft of a novel or story, plus ways to make subsequent drafts focused, intention-lead improvements:
Prewriting before writing first drafts
‘But I’m a pantser!’ you may exclaim. Prewriting is a broad term for the first stage of the writing process, though. It is malleable and allows finding a pre-drafting approach that feeds your own creativity.
We’ve explored the different types of prewriting you can do, but to summarize, it includes pre-draft activities such as:
- Story planning and outlining
- Using brainstorming, freewriting and other idea-expanding techniques
- Creating character ideas (or fleshing them out) using questionnaires and other brainstorming techniques
- Doing extensive or initial research to understand the subject areas of your story better
- Reverse outlining before you begin a second draft (outlining between drafts to get a condensed view of what you’ve already written)
Why do prewriting (and make it an essential part of your drafting process)?
- You may find ideas and subtopics or subplots you may not have otherwise thought of in the process of asking questions.
- Prepare to start drafting: It’s arguably easier to draft with confidence when you have some idea of where you’re going (there’s still freedom in a loose plan).
- Sense-checking any contradictions or head-scratching plot developments in your story before you start. A summary view makes it easier to think about large-picture movement and story development.
Prolific New Adult/contemporary fiction author Colleen Hoover said of prewriting;
I always outline my books, but I’ve never stuck to an outline. Basically, I’m a wannabe planner, but am 100% a pantser. It does help to make outlines I’ll never use, though. Sometimes while I write the outline, it takes me in a direction I wouldn’t have thought of if I didn’t waste time outlining, so it’s not a complete loss.Colleen Hoover, via Goodreads in answer to a reader’s question, 2020.
Draft stories the way that works for you
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, 1992.
Many authors prefer not to draft like Calvino, preferring to leave corrections and revisions until the entire draft is complete (more on reasons not to stop to edit if you can help it below). As for writing longhand, you either find that helps or impedes your flow.
Which method you choose depends on what you feel comfortable with.
Does reviewing and making corrections as you go discourage you, making you feel daunted? Make you doubt what you’ve written? Then turn your font color to match your page background so that you can’t edit as you go.
Change the color back only before saving your document until the next writing session.
This is one simple method to force yourself to keep going until your final draft rather than derail process with mid-flow rewriting.
Use writing drafts as a kind of prewriting
It is common to divide the writing process into five stages:
- Prewriting – outlining, planning, research.
- Drafting – turning summary ideas into sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters.
- Revising – rewriting, adding in, taking out, re-sequencing.
- Editing – correcting, developing, polishing, improving
- Publishing – formatting, publishing, designing (covers), promoting.
While this five-stage idea of writing is a useful shorthand, the truth is there is often passage back and forth between stages. Sometimes the draft leads you back into research. Sometimes post-publication reception necessitates revised editions (the 50th anniversary HarperCollins edition of The Lord of the Rings included 400 corrections!).
The point of this is to say that although a first draft may feel like a final draft, rewriting is where many stories come to life.
In Now Novel’s online critique groups, members have shared extracts from consecutive drafts of work-in-progress. The difference is often night and day. So try a ‘draft zero’ – a quicker draft that gets the bones of your story into something resembling a complete skeleton.
This is often referred to as a ‘discovery draft’. Sir Terry Pratchett describes it as a process of closing in on what you mean to say:
My writing, at least for the first draft, is entirely instinctive as I watch the movie in my head and only during the second draft do I close in on what I mean to say.Sir Terry Pratchett, in ‘Inaugural Professorial Lecture at Trinity College, Dublin, 4 November 2010’ in A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected non-fiction , 2014.
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Schedule your drafting sessions
How do you stick to your writing goals, especially when drafting and you’re in the thick of narrative unfolding, accumulating?
A schedule might not be something you always manage to stick to, but studies have found that simply writing your goals down makes it more likely you’ll achieve them.
Drafting a work of fiction longer than an essay or short story may feel particularly Sisyphean (like a task that can never be completed, named after the figure from Greek mythology condemned to roll a boulder up a hill).
For this reason, try to:
- Keep drafting sessions shorter with breaks – the pomodoro technique and other time-management tools (even just setting a timer for half an hour at a time) may help
- Keep writing goals attainable (SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-based). For example, try writing 250 words within half an hour to start and adjust writing session goals according to what you can manage comfortably
Habit-building and decision-making guru James Clear shared several authors’ writing routines. These gems from Henry Miller are particularly apt for the drafting stage of the writing process:
Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!Henry Miller, quoted by James Clear in ‘The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers’, accessed November 2022.
When you can’t create you can work.
Choose a focus for each 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, getting research correct, or adding descriptive detail) may help make the work you do during your second draft (or a subsequent one) precise.
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.
Avoid common drafting don’ts
One of the most often stated pieces of advice for the drafting phase is this: Don’t stop to edit.
There’s good reason for this. First drafts aren’t meant to be tidy, polished, word-perfect. They serve broader purposes (remember Pratchett: Close in on what you mean to say).
[In these articles, I find the headings first – this gives me a sense of the piece’s scope and helps me close in on secondary topics – ed’s note.]
Other first draft don’ts:
- Don’t compare yourself to other writers
- Avoid sharing your work until you’re ready to hear feedback (and can separate the useful from what doesn’t serve you if using peer critique)
It takes bravery to share a first draft (or even a final draft) for critique – the right crit circle will pay attention to your intentions and be constructive in their suggestions.
Steal moments to draft wherever you can
For writing a first draft or a rewrite, you don’t need to be tied to one device or approach. You might write some longhand, some in Word or Google Docs, and collate later. You might even write fragments in a notes app on your phone, email these to yourself, and cut-paste into your larger active draft document later.
In a Now Novel writing webinar, writing coach Romy Sommer shared how she wrote parts of her debut novel while waiting in her car on the school run.
Her anecdote shows how sometimes, the stolen moments are what you have. You can make sufficient progress using them towards a substantial first draft.
Write the messiest first draft you need
Many writers are INFP-T types (the ‘T’ stands for ‘turbulence’).
Some characteristics of this personality type include:
- Tending to view mistakes – or rather, ideals not matching reality/outcomes – as failures
- Tending towards less optimistic anticipations about the outcome of endeavors (such as writing drafts)
There is liberation in embracing that drafting is the messiest stage of the writing process. There will be typos and plot holes. Will be ‘What on earth was I thinking?’, head-scratching moments.
A first draft gives you great freedom to try other ways of organizing and teasing out ideas.
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.
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. Freedom is messy but fun, too, the way play is.
[You can also brainstorm and develop ideas in easy steps in our story dashboard and play with associations and ideas.]
Decide when you need feedback to progress
Between writing a first draft and subsequent drafts, you may want to get external perspective on what’s working in your story, and what isn’t working as well (and why).
An experienced reader such as a beta reader or editor familiar with your genre may be helpful at this stage.
Useful types of feedback between drafts include:
- Manuscript assessments/evaluations – a process preceding developmental editing or copy-editing
- Peer critique in a writing circle – make sure your writing circle gives the kind of feedback you want (you can always lurk a little first in an online writing group and give feedback to writers whose feedback style you enjoy to build connections)
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.
Make a checklist for the next stage of process
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 Publication Coach Daphne Gray-Grant here.
After writing your first draft, think about making a checklist to guide your next. Think about what makes a good story. Your checklist may include questions such as:
- Does each chapter contribute to establishing characters’ goals, motivations and conflicts?
- Is the writing clear and the language suited to my target audience’s age group or language faculty?
- Is there a balance between my narrator’s interiority or inner monologue and outward action/event?
Let your own questions and inner editor’s voice (and crit circle, editor or beta readers if you’re at this stage of revision and editing) guide your checklist.
What is your drafting process like? Share it with us in the comments.
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18 replies on “Writing first drafts: 10 ideas to reach final drafts”
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.
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.
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.
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!!
“write drunk, edit sober”
Great theory Pablo, I’m not sure if it works for everyone 🙂
[…] speaking, most people who put in a little time most days should be able to finish at least a first draft in about a year. A page is roughly 250 words, and writing six days per week at one page per day for […]
[…] needs to remember that the first draft does not have to be polished or perfect. In fact, the first draft can be terrible; it can have gaps in it, entire scenes missing with a note for later insertion, and poorly written […]
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!
I’ll remember the last line Sandra, its a keeper 🙂