How to Conquer the First Draft

The first draft of a novel or prose is arguably the most challenging phase of creation for novel writers. Trying to get all the ideas down in a way that’s presentable and sounds impressive is challenging, and the temptation to edit is strong every time you open the document. Here are some strategies that may help break the first-draft-editing spiral.

Architect writers (those who plan before they fill in details) could benefit from writing the first draft in point form. While this may not feel like “writing,” getting all the ideas down and filling things in as you think of them can help remove the linearity of draft writing. If you think of something or want to change a previous idea, just go back and change the bullet point. Nothing is written out in full prose yet, so it’s still flexible and easy to sculpt the framework for your story!

Gardener writers (those who see how a story develops as they write) can benefit from writing with absolute abandon. While writing with abandon may sound easier said than done, writing changes into the story that contradict what you’ve already written is entirely okay in a first draft. In the second draft, you can look for inconsistencies, scratch out ideas you changed, and integrate the ideas you added. A little recklessness never hurts the first draft!

Another strategy is to write the story in a bunch of different documents. While this may be a little chaotic for some, separating scenes or characters into various documents can help focus the piece on developing that scene or character alone, rather than within the context of the whole story. It also removes the temptation to edit previously written text. Once it’s time for the second draft, the separate documents can be put together like a puzzle and then joined and smoothed out during the second draft writing. 

A simple solution is to handwrite your draft. While this method is definitely slower, some writers find it to be tried and true. Slowing down allows for more thought and intimacy with character development. Plus, you cannot edit ink on paper with a click. This method doesn’t have to be applied to the whole first draft–similar to having separate documents for scenes, you could write certain things on paper and others on a word processor. Just don’t forget where all the drafts are!

Writing with abandon is difficult, especially when a lot of advice is on making writing sound beautiful, well structured, and brilliant. While this advice is still useful, keep it on the back-burner for the second draft. For the first draft, forget “good writing” rules, punctuation, and grammar. You can edit all of that later. Put everything that comes to mind on the page–censoring writing before it’s even on the page might keep some excellent ideas from ever coming to light! Remember, no one has to witness the process–you have plenty of time to edit and refine before anyone will see your work. The first draft is just for you.

As Ernest Hemmingway said, “the first draft of anything is shit” and that’s okay! Remember that writing the first draft is about discovering the story, not about telling it. 

Happy writing!

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