5 Ideas To Keep In Mind Writing A First Draft

Courtesy of Copyblogger

Writing first drafts is tough, right? I mean, writing first drafts of anything are difficult. Even writing the first draft of this particular blog post was tough.

For those of you participating in November’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I probably don’t need to tell you that working every day to write a story is struggle. It’s a journey that often has no road map and no set destination.

But the one thing I have learned over the years is that, your first draft is all about discovering your story, not worrying about publishing one. It’s all about unearthing the information, getting to know the characters, exploring different settings, and discovering the arc of your narrative. It’s also about learning that the everything else can wait until the second draft.

I still struggle with finding a way to get comfortable when starting a new writing project. In a way, this blog post is as much about me having a  conversation with myself, telling me to , “Stop wasting valuable time,” as it is helping you find a way to finish your own first draft.

Write freely – Write fast

Writing the first draft of your novel is really just about trying to get as many ideas down on paper – as quickly as you can.  Never sensor yourself and don’t worry about spelling or punctuation at all at this stage, just work on ideas.  If you change your mind about how you want to say something, don’t waste time thinking about a better way to say it, just make a note and come back to it later.  You may find that you have a lot of repetition in your first draft.  That’s fine. That tells you that particular idea has stuck with you – so keep it. The important thing is that you don’t sidetrack yourself fretting over first draft imperfections – it’s a first draft, after all. Tell a story and save any attempts at perfection for your second draft.

When writing your first draft, don’t worry about the order of things. Write the parts you know – don’t waste time trying to figure out what you don’t know. 

One of the reasons why many of us have trouble writing a first draft is that we try to write the perfect draft – right from the get go.  This is a difficult, and sometimes it can be an impossible task. And it can restrict you from telling an even better story.

When the director of a movie is shooting scenes for a movie, they hardly ever shoot the movie in chronological order. They do the scenes in a way that compliment  the schedule – LATER they edit the scenes into the movie they want to release.

I see so many people who struggle with their first drafts because they worry they don’t always know what comes next. People will  waste countless hours just staring at blank pages, hoping something will pop into their heads.

You can easily fall into the trap of writing dozens of scenes, rejecting them all, and starting over each time because you have no clear vision on where to go.  It’s fairly obvious that this is a non-productive waste of time.

So the first thing to do is to get down everything about your story that you DO KNOW. Even if later down the line you realize that the story has changed during the course of your writing, that’s okay. Make the proper notes necessary to fix it later – but then move on. Don’t try to stop and fix it immediately. That’s self-editing and it’s a first draft killer. Simply write the about the things that are the easiest to get finished and that are fresh in your head. Always finish the things that come easiest, whether it’s a beginning, middle, or ending. Just write.

Don’t over-sweat the details. Think of your first draft as being a “proto-type” and not the “finished product”

Don’t allow yourself to get bogged down chasing details. It’s not important to know what brand of sneakers a character has, or if this detail or that detail is appropriate for the time period. Whether you believe it or not, these things don’t matter during the first draft.

If, during your preparation, you made notes that address such topics, then fine add them. But don’t let yourself get caught in a pattern of stopping and starting all the time just to look something up or waste time checking to make sure a detail is historically accurate or not.

I once type a whole story where I had changed the name of my protagonist three times during the writing of the draft. At first it nagged me a little, but after a while I managed to get comfortable with the fact that it didn’t really matter. I mean, I knew who I was writing about. Get the story down – add in the details later.


When writing your first draft, bracket those sections you can’t write yet and try to finish a draft of the whole story.

When you are writing your first draft you will probably find that you don’t have all of the material worked out for what you will need.  For example, you may know that you need your hero to discover a certain detail, or that a certain scene will be  crucial in the middle of your story, and if you know these, fine. Get them down on paper. But if you’re stumped, just put a note in brackets: “[need something to happen here to get the hero to want to leave the comfort of their home].”  Then move on to the next scene.  Likewise with details that you haven’t figured out yet.  Put a note in brackets to remind yourself of what you need, but don’t stop to look for it as you write your draft.

Make notes to yourself as to what you need to solve or develop as you work to finish your story.  I find that by doing this, it saves me a great deal of time. It also creates a type of  “shopping list” that will help me know what  I need to finish the story.

What’s equally important that you try to get down on paper what you want the novel to say to your readers.  It’s important to build the “feel” of your story. Even if there are gaping holes all over your story, if there is a feel there – you will know you’ve got something.  I’m not saying that your story won’t need major revision and that you really want to take a different approach than you had originally planned, that’s just fine.  Writing is a journey of discovery. In fact, most times these revelations end up improving the story. They will help to clarify what details are important enough to pursue and what can be omitted.

Write your first draft in the way that is easiest and most comfortable for you.

If you are an experienced typist, you will probably type your first draft.  But if it is easier for you to write in longhand, do that.  My friend Brian writes out all his first drafts in longhand on his commute to and from work. He says it helps him avoid the temptation to get on the internet and look things up, or stops him from going into automatic-self-edit-mode.

Many writers find that after writing a draft on longhand the process of entering it into the word processor gives them a chance to easily revise and correct the errors in the original.  Do whatever you’re most comfortable with.  Do not try to make the first draft the final draft.  Consign yourself to the realization that you will revise this later. That way you can be much more loose and free in writing your first draft, and you can do it much more quickly.

In writing your first draft, you want to write as quickly and easily as you can. Just spend time concentrating on the words but don’t waste time about the mode of producing the words.  Go with whatever comes easiest and whatever causes the least amount of distraction to you.  Remember, you will be revising this work, so sloppy is totally acceptable.

First drafts are ideas. They are the sparks of inspiration that light the fires of our endeavors.  But they are only the first step in a many stepped process.  When writing your first draft – keep repeating over and over “A first draft is not about perfection. It’s all about telling a story

What are some other techniques that can help in writing first drafts?

4 thoughts on “5 Ideas To Keep In Mind Writing A First Draft

  1. This is great, James! I love the shopping cart idea. When you know you need to edit but want to keep writing, the venerable “TK” is always good. Then control=F TK. I call the feel of the story the “dream” because it sums up for me the encapsulated idea, narrative, and feel all in one. Great post!

    1. Thank you Lee! I’m still trying to get the hang of writing at least one post a week – so I appreciate the feedback. Honestly, the reason I called this a Shopping List is due to the fact that I was actually composing a shopping list at the same time I was writing this post. I thought – I need bread flour, AND I need to figure out how my character breaks into a booby-trapped safe . Isn’t it funny how everyday life things can cross over into your writing. Thanks again for taking the time and for your comments.

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