The first draft is the most important phase of your project. Here’s how to keep it fast and fun.
Do you know why so many writers freeze up the moment they sit down to write? The reason that the fear, the anxiety, and the uncertainty bubbles up and causes an otherwise articulate person to resist putting a single word on the page?
It’s the idea that what you’re writing now will be what the reader will see later.
This is almost never the case. Which is why, when it comes to writing, it’s important to begin simply: by thinking of any piece of work you’re doing as a first draft.
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What qualifies as a first draft?
A first draft or rough draft is the initial version of a piece of writing, whether it’s an essay, article, short story, or chapter in a nonfiction book or novel. The first draft is the initial output you create, with no extensive editing, revision, or proofreading.
First drafts are essential because they serve as the foundation upon which you can build and refine your work. They allow you to get your ideas down on the page without getting bogged down by perfectionism or self-criticism. Once you’ve completed a rough draft, you can review, revise, or edit your work to improve clarity, coherence, style, and overall quality.
Generally, a piece of writing can be considered a first draft if:
- It captures the writer’s initial thoughts and ideas.
- It covers the main points or themes, but lacks completeness.
- It may be rough and unpolished, with errors in grammar and style.
- The organization and structure might be loose or imperfect.
- Annotations and comments for self-improvement may be present.
- It may contain inconsistencies, both in content and style.
- The primary focus is on getting ideas down rather than perfection.
How to write a first draft
“I believe the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months,” says New York Times bestselling author Stephen King, and we tend to agree. A first draft is nothing but a way of taking the ideas in your head and putting them on the page. We’ll give them shape later. Right now, for the first draft, the goal is simply to have them exist as fast as possible.
Here are some strategies, techniques and writing tips that will make it easier to transform your ideas into words on the page.
1. Make time for your writing
No one—and I do mean no one—writes the first draft of anything without some serious arse in chair time. (Yes, that’s the technical term.)
Want to write more? Want to write faster? Put your arse in the chair as often as you can, for as long as you can.
Now, this might not always be possible. You might have a full-time job, kids, and other responsibilities that come in the way of your writing. Regardless, if you want to finish your first draft, you’re going to have to schedule writing time. Establish a routine that aligns with your goals and guard that time fiercely. Some ideas for how to do that:
- Set clear priorities: Recognize the importance of your writing and prioritize it in your daily life. Create a regular writing routine, whether it’s daily, weekly, or on specific days.
- Wake up early or stay up late: Consider waking up an hour earlier in the morning or, if you’re like me, staying up after everyone’s gone to bed, to get a few uninterrupted hours of writing time.
- Use your lunch breaks: If you have a full-time job, see if you can use part of your lunch break for writing. If you work from home, treat the time you may have spent commuting as “found time” and use it to put some words on the page.
- Weekend retreats: If time and budget allow, consider going on a weekend retreat for a solid block of writing time. If going away isn’t an option, perhaps you can have a makeshift retreat of your own at home.
- Plan ahead: Try to schedule writing time in advance to ensure it doesn’t get overshadowed by other commitments. If you have children, arrange childcare during your writing hours. The more you can delegate non-essential tasks or chores, the more writing time you can free up.
2. Know your story before you start writing
While it’s tempting to just open a blank page and start writing, this is the most difficult and inefficient way to write a first draft. That’s not to say that you can’t be a pantser—someone who writes without an outline and by the seat of their pants (hence the name)—but knowing what you want to say makes it infinitely easier for you to actually say it.
It’s crucial to have a clear understanding of your story, no matter whether you’re a novelist, a screenwriter, a short story writer, or journalist. And knowing your story, including your main characters, is essential for a successful drafting process, especially if this is your first book or first novel.
Here are some aspects of your work that are helpful to know before you begin writing:
- Purpose and message: Knowing your story’s purpose and central message provides you with a compass to navigate the writing process. Are you aiming to entertain, inform, persuade, or provoke thought? This clarity guides your decisions throughout the first draft stage.
- Characters: Understanding your characters’ backgrounds, motivations, and arcs allows you to breathe life into them on the page. It enables you to craft multidimensional characters with authentic reactions and growth.
- Plot structure: Knowing the overarching plot and its key events helps you maintain a cohesive and engaging narrative, whether you’re brainstorming or world building. You can create foreshadowing, build tension, and ensure that each scene contributes to the story’s progress when you know where you’re heading.
- Themes: Identifying the themes and vibes you want to explore allows you to weave them into your narrative seamlessly. Themes add depth to your story and provide readers with thought-provoking ideas.
3. Write out of order
The conventional approach to writing a first draft involves starting at the beginning and progressing sequentially to the end. While this method works well for many writers, it’s not the only path to a successful final product. In fact, you may find that it might work better for your writing process to write out of order.
Here’s why this unconventional approach works:
- Overcoming writer’s block: The frustration of staring at a blank page can be paralyzing. Writing out of order allows you to sidestep this roadblock. If you’re feeling stuck on an introduction or a particular chapter, don’t let it hinder your progress. Instead, jump to a body paragraph or different section of your work that excites you. By doing this, you keep your creative juices flowing and maintain momentum.
- Capturing ideas as they come: Inspiration often strikes at unpredictable moments. You might have a brilliant idea for the conclusion of your podcast episode, the climax of your novel, or the final argument in your thesis statement long before you reach that point in your rough draft. By writing out of order, you can capture these ideas while they’re fresh and vivid, ensuring you don’t forget them.
- Building the core of your work: Sometimes, you may have a clear vision of the central themes, arguments, or emotional arcs of your work before you have all the details in place. In such cases, writing these pivotal sections first can provide a strong foundation upon which you can build the rest of your narrative.
- Flexibility and experimentation: Writing out of order gives you the freedom to experiment with different writing styles, tones, or perspectives. Whether you’re a screenwriter exploring various character interactions or a novelist tackling non-linear storytelling, this approach allows you to explore diverse creative avenues without feeling confined by chronological constraints.
- Maintaining enthusiasm: The creative writing process can be a long and demanding journey. Writing out of order allows you to maintain enthusiasm by working on the parts of your work that excite you the most. This enthusiasm can get you through the messy middle when you’re in the thick of it and questions about why you’re even doing this begin to surface.
4. Allow for imperfection
Listen, you’re not going to get it right the first time. So stop expecting that of yourself.
The first draft, as I mentioned before, is the draft whose sole purpose is to take something out of your head and make it exist on the page. Typos are fine! Your word choices will change! There is no bad thing you can do in this draft that cannot be changed, revised, or edited out.
Your only goal when writing the first draft is to take those ideas from your head and turn them into words on the page. There will be other drafts—a second draft, a third draft, a final draft—that will start bringing order to this material and mould it into shape. But you can’t give shape to something that doesn’t exist.
So use this draft to get everything out of your head and on to the page. Then you can either self-edit or work with beta readers or professional editors to take it further.
5. Keep yourself accountable with goals and deadlines
I’m willing to bet my favorite writing pen that half the writing that exists in the world today wouldn’t have been committed to page if there wasn’t a frustrated editor breathing down a writer’s neck with a can’t-be-missed deadline. While it’s unlikely you’ll have an editor for your fiction writing, at least at first, you can keep yourself accountable by setting your own deadlines. Here’s what you need to keep in mind when doing so:
- Define clear goals: Set specific, measurable, and achievable writing goals. These could include word count targets, chapter outlines, research milestones, or deadlines for submitting work to editors or publishers.
- Break down larger goals: For larger projects, like novel writing or research papers, break them down into smaller chunks. Set deadlines for completing each section or chapter. This will prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and can help you make steady progress.
- Set and honor deadlines: Give yourself deadlines for completing specific writing tasks. These deadlines can be self-imposed or align with external submission requirements. However, it’s imperative that you treat these deadlines with the same seriousness that you would a deadline from an editor or publisher.
- Track progress: Regularly review your progress. Make sure to celebrate your achievements, even small ones, to stay motivated and keep writing.
6. Eliminate distractions
You can’t write if you can’t concentrate. And you can’t concentrate if you have notifications going off every two minutes, a child knocking on your door because they’re hungry and need a snack, or you can’t resist the urge to see what Taylor Swift’s been up to Instagram.
The very first thing you need to do once you’ve committed to finishing your first draft is to create space in your life for your writing to happen and minimize or eliminate any distractions. Here’s how:
- Turn off notifications: Silence your phone, mute social media notifications, and close irrelevant tabs or apps on your computer. These constant pings and alerts can pull you away from your writing flow.
- Set clear boundaries: If you share your writing space with others, communicate your need for uninterrupted time. Let family members, roommates, or colleagues know when you’ll be writing and request their cooperation.
- Use website blockers: If you find yourself succumbing to the temptation of browsing the Internet during writing sessions, consider using website blockers or productivity apps that restrict access to distracting websites for a set period.
- Declutter your workspace: A clutter-free environment can lead to a clutter-free mind. Organize your writing area and keep it tidy to minimize visual distractions.
- Use noise-cancelling headphones: If you’re in a noisy environment, invest in noise-cancelling headphones to block out external sounds and create a more serene writing atmosphere.
7. Practice writing in sprints
Writing sprints or word sprints are short, focused bursts of writing where you set a timer and write as much as you can during that specific timeframe. These sprints can vary in length, but common durations include 10, 15, or 20 minutes.
The key is to commit to uninterrupted writing during the sprint, without editing or revising as you go. Writing sprints are about getting words on the page, not perfecting them.
Writing sprints work for a few reasons:
- They create a sense of urgency, reducing the temptation to procrastinate or endlessly revise.
- The time constraint of a sprint encourages heightened concentration, leading to increased productivity.
- Sprints break writing tasks into manageable chunks, allowing for consistent and measurable progress.
- They make the process of writing more time-efficient by emphasizing output over perfection.
- Practicing writing in sprints provides a structured approach to improving writing skills and becoming a better writer.
8. Use the TK placeholder
Using the “TK” placeholder is a technique that English-language journalists often use to maintain their writing flow and avoid getting stuck when they can’t immediately recall a specific detail or need to insert additional information. TK, which stands for to come, is an acknowledgement that there’s a gap or missing content that requires attention.
Once your initial draft is complete, you can revisit these TK placeholders and add in all relevant or missing information.
9. Don’t go back and fix things you’re changing
Resist, I repeat, resist the temptation to go back and fix things as you write. This urge to rewrite is especially strong in new writers, who feel they must make what they’ve written perfect, or even legible, before they can move on to the next section.
Here’s the thing: What you’re writing will change. And if you’re making big changes, like renaming a character, changing the point of view, or expanding the time period, they will affect the parts of the book you’ve already written. However, by going back and making those changes now, you’re creating extra work for yourself for two reasons:
- You may implement the changes and write in a new point of view or a different period of time only to find that it doesn’t really work. If you decide to revert changes, you’ll have to go back and fix your entire novel again.
- There are still many decisions you’ll make as your story moves forward that will continue to impact the beginning. It’s far better to write the first draft all the way through and see how it ends before going back to implement any changes. There may be far more—or less—than what you expected.
That’s a job for the editing process. For the phase you’re in right now, the goal is simply to get to The End. So turn off track changes, focus on your own first draft, and keep writing and moving forward step by step until you get there.
10. Know your next step
You don’t—and can’t—know how the whole thing will end. The best you can do at any point during the writing of the first draft is to know the next step.
Much like a hiker navigating through dense woods, you can’t see the entire trail from the starting point, but you can identify the next marker or landmark. Similarly, in writing, you may not have the entire plot or structure of your story mapped out, but you can always figure out the next sentence, paragraph, or scene that needs to be written.
And when you’re writing the first draft? That’s all you need to know.
Learn how to finish your first draft the easy way
The first draft of a book should take no more than three months to finish, as the great Stephen King suggests, but for most authors, it can end up being a multi-year challenge.
If you’re tired of the struggle and eager to finish that writing project you’ve poured your heart and soul into, we’re here to show you an easier way. Learn how you can finish your first draft in just 90 days with Finish That Damn Book, one of the 20+ courses available through Wordling PLUS.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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