The first draft is one of the trickiest stages to be at in the writing process. Many aspiring writers get stuck here and ultimately give up. But you don’t have to. With the right strategies, you can confidently complete your first draft.
Here are some steps to help you get through this process.
The Set Up
These strategies will help you organize your time, space, and goals to ensure you have everything you need before each writing session.
Make a schedule
Before you sit down to write, make sure you know what you’re writing about. Block out specific times for story planning, researching, and writing sessions.
The calendar below shows an example schedule for someone who typically only has time to write on the weekends.
Notice that each session, whether it is to plan, research, or write, has at least one task which is its focus. Be sure to include these in your own schedule. Tasks can be anything from creating a Pinterest board for one of your characters to achieving a particular word count.
Be smart about your goals
Being able to see how far you’ve come is a great motivator. To keep your momentum, track your progress with S.M.A.R.T. goals. These should be specific goals with a clear form of progression. They should also be reasonable – be honest with yourself if you can meet a goal or not. At the same time, they must be relevant to your project and have a timeline.
Here is an example:
Remember to reward yourself for meeting goals. If you’re sacrificing TV time to write in the evenings, catch up on your favorite series after you meet a big word count goal.
Be dedicated and focused
Distractions can often be the downfall to a project. In the time you spend away from your writing, you risk losing interest and motivation. Try to limit them as much as possible.
One way you can do this is to strategically choose a writing space. Our brains are wired to link specific tasks with specific places, so having a dedicated corner, coffee shop, or office can condition you to be focused while you’re there.
Make sure you won’t be disturbed during this time. Let friends and family know you’ll be busy and need to get things done. If you can, consider putting your phone on Do Not Disturb mode. You can also lock your phone apps or turn on a focused browser mode during your writing sessions to prevent yourself from scrolling socials and losing track of time.
Have a clear definition
Every writer has a different perception of what a “first draft” means. It can be a list of bullet points with details for each chapter. Or it could be one long wall of text that was the writer’s train of thought. It could be telling the story as if you were telling it to a friend, without traditional prose. Or it could be one of many attempts at polished prose that will be edited later.
Whatever your thoughts, write what “first draft” means to you. Keep it somewhere you will see it – in your story notes or on a sticky note on your desk. Use this to remind yourself what your goal is with this draft.
If your definition is “A messy compilation of thoughts roughly organized as chapters and scenes with information gaps, but which spans from beginning to end,” then you won’t be troubled with making sure every detail is accounted for. That’s for a later draft.
Now let’s take a look at some steps you can take to make each writing session productive and creative. Don’t forget that last part. Creativity and fun are necessary!
Summarize your plot
Before you write a single word of prose, create a synopsis. This is a short summary of your plot, typically between 1-3 sentences. The aim of the exercise is to make it as simple as possible while including all the main elements of your story’s premise – character, setting, problem, question.
Once you have this, have a friend read it. Better yet, have multiple people read it. Check in with them on their thoughts. The best way to understand if your synopsis is strong is to ask them:
- What are three things you loved about it?
- What are three questions you had while reading?
If the questions you receive are confused or disinterested, then you need to revise your synopsis. Confused questions can be “What is the point of this?” or “How is this detail important?” or “I don’t understand this part.” Use their questions to guide your edits and make confusing details clearer.
If the questions you receive are engaged and interested, then you have a strong synopsis. Engaged questions can be “What happens after this?” or “How do they get through that?”
Become an explorer
There is no perfect way to write a novel. The process is exploratory and the first draft should be the most enjoyable. Here are some tips to keep it that way:
- Accept every idea. At this point, your story is just beginning. This is the ideal time for you to experiment by adding new twists, side plots, or characters. Details may feel too concrete to change by later drafting stages.
- Ban your critical voice. Everyone has one. It’s that side of you that wants to perfect every minute detail. The first draft is meant to have mistakes, though. You can have spelling errors. You can write without punctuation if you want. You can have plot holes and flat characters for now. Your critical voice may also tell you that your story is bad. That is normal and fixable. The goal is to get something down. Afterwards, you can make notes of errors and fix them.
- Write in any order. You don’t have to write chronologically. If you know exactly how you want to write one scene but are struggling with the scene before it, skip it and go straight to the one you are excited for. Hopping around will keep up your motivation and sense of progress. Once you have the main details down and go back to fill in missing ones, you’ll find you have a better idea what to put there.
- Sticky notes are your friend. Writing down big plot points on sticky notes can help you see things as a big picture. You can easily move notes around to experiment with the order of events and find what works best.
- Use placeholders. If you are missing a detail or word, don’t stop your flow to figure it out. Leave a placeholder such as TK, an intentional error meaning “to come” that editors use. You can use a search document tool to find all your placeholders later.
- Prewrite before writing. Use writing exercises and prompts to clear your mind. Doing so will help you focus your thoughts during your writing sessions and keep a productive flow.
Reach the finish line
The first draft is complete when you can read it from beginning to end. It won’t be polished and may have some errors, but it should have the shape of a story and make sense.
At this point you may want to ask someone for feedback. Prepare a list of questions you want them to answer and use those to guide your plan for the next draft. If you don’t want feedback, take a break from the story yourself before reading it again and making a plan with notes you make.
. . .
While the first draft can be one of the toughest, it should also be the most fun. With planning, clear goals, and dedication you can finish it faster than you thought. Remember to celebrate each milestone to encourage yourself throughout the process. This will foster your motivation, creativity, and the enjoyment you get out of your journey.