First drafts are really hard.
You’re taking this idea floating around in your head, and you’re trying to get it down onto paper in the way you envisioned.
First drafts are really hard, but they’re also really rewarding. That feeling you get when you hit your stride and know that what you have now is just the beginning of something wonderful — that’s priceless.
The good news is that once you get your first draft down, it can only get better.
I’ve always prided myself on being a fast and efficient drafter. (Just this April, I wrote 75k for Camp NaNo) That being said, I’ve learned some ticks and trips to making writing a first draft as easy as writing a first draft can be.
1. DON’T EDIT AS YOU GO
Editing during your first draft is very rarely a good idea.
I know I like to talk about how everyone has a different process and how you have to find that process by trying different things, but. . .
First drafts are a fragile thing, and editing as you go can probably do more harm than good:
- Being critical of your first draft before it’s even finished isn’t fair to your creative mind
- It’s hard to switch between editor hats and writer hats when all you need to do is get the story down
- Once you realize how bad your draft is (because you will — everyone realizes this) it’ll be hard to keep writing instead of rewriting
It’s like climbing a really tall building. If you look down, you’re going to freak yourself out.
I love editing as I go during revision, but during first drafts I have to turn off the part of my brain that wants everything neat, organized, and as polished as possible. You can’t move forward in your first draft if you keep looking backwards, so turn your inner perfectionist off and write.
2. KEEP A LIST OF THINGS YOU WANT TO FIX, BUT DON’T FIX THEM
So you can’t edit — but it’s still hard to ignore all the messes that do come up during your first draft.
Every time I come across a problem in my first draft (which is often, no matter how much outlining I do before) I add it to a list of things wrong with my draft.
It sounds kind of demoralizing, as if you’re keeping a list of your failures, but for me, knowing I have problems and knowing I can fix them later is really helpful.
Plus, once I write something down, I can let go of the critical thought, because I know it’s written down and will get taken care of later. It also makes revision a lot easier, too!
3. UNDERSTAND THE PURPOSE OF FIRST DRAFTS
Shannon Hale said, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
This is so important to remind yourself when you’re writing a first draft! It’s hard to create something out of nothing, but you can’t revise and perfect a story that’s not there.
The purpose of your first draft is to get the story down. That’s your goal.
It doesn’t matter if your sentences are incoherent, if there are several typos, if there’s a plot hole in the first act and an even bigger one in the third. Your characters can be flat, your prose can be purple.
Just get the story out of your head and onto paper.
4. DON’T PLAY THE COMPARISON GAME
Your first draft isn’t going to be “good” the same way your favorite book is.
When I’m drafting, I become a little too conscious of other people’s work. I think everyone else is writing flawless work except for me.
But that’s not true. Your first drafts aren’t going to be like anyone else’s first drafts. And it certainly won’t be like anyone’s finished draft.
Don’t get yourself down by comparing your rough rock to a diamond that’s been polished several times.
5. BE FLEXIBLE
During this process, be flexible, or you’ll break.
If you’re an outliner, prepare to pants.
If you’re a pantser, prepare to outline.
As long as you’re writing the story, you’re doing the first draft the “right way.”
The process may not look like what you thought it would. Your outline may fall through. Your plan to just pants everything might fall through. Be prepared to switch gears and do something you’ve never done before, because every book is different.
Every book needs to be told a different way, so don’t put yourself in the box.
5. REMEMBER HOW MUCH YOU LOVE THIS IDEA
In your darkest hour (aka, the first draft) it’s going to be hard to remember why you started this whole stupid thing. You’re convinced that your cat could have come up with a better idea.
But that’s probably not how you felt when you got the idea, right? Remember when you were excited to write? Excited to dive into a new world with new characters?
Remembering why you start can help you push through your first draft:
- Frame it — Can you vividly remember a time when you were really excited about your story? During Camp NaNo in April, I became super jazzed about my story. There were butterflies in my stomach and my fingers tingled with anticipation. When I felt that way, I wrote about it. I wrote a note to future Madeline to remind her how I felt. Now whenever I need a pick-me-up during revisions, I turn to that note.
- Aesthetic board — Is there a better way to pump yourself up? Look at your aesthetic board, look at the pictures that tell your story, and let them inspire you.
- Sticky note on your computer — Why are you writing this story? Why this one? Take some time to think about the answer, then write it out and put it on your computer.
- Keep a list of things you like — This is like the list of things you want to fix, but more fun. Highlight the lines you’re proud of. Write down a list of things you think you’re doing well. Your first draft won’t be all roses, but there will be some. You just need to look for them.
6. KEEP YOUR MOMENTUM
Writing a first draft is one really big mind game you play with yourself. Once you start writing, the trick is to keep your fingers going, to keep the ideas coming.
Here’s how I try to keep my momentum during a first draft:
- Leave off in the middle of a chapter — It might feel weird, but being able to go back and read where you left off will help you ease right back into writing. Staring at the blank page of a new chapter is hard, but coming back to words already written isn’t quite so bad.
- If I’m having a good writing day, I try to keep writing — If I hit my daily word count, but I’m still feeling good, I take advantage of it. It’s nice when creativity shows up at the same time you do.
- Take breaks from writing, but never from the story — I usually give myself all weekend off from writing. To keep my momentum, I assign myself the mental homework of continuously thinking of my story off the clock.