There’s no feeling quite like the moment you realized you’ve completely finished the rough draft of a work in progress. A mix of pride and accomplishment and utter dread at how bad it might be.

When I got to the end of my first novel’s draft, I could hardly believe I’d really made it to the end. It took much longer than I’d expected to reach that accomplishment—and there was a lot more left to go than I could have anticipated.

What I Learned About Rough Drafts From My First Novel

But I learned a ton along the way. As my novel finally nears its publication release date next month, I’ve been in a reflective mood about how I got here. And I want to share the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Here are 10 things I learned about rough drafts, from my own first novel:

1. Celebrate—it’s a big deal!

No really. Completing a rough draft is major. Be sure to take a minute and appreciate that. Tell a writer friend and celebrate together. Do you have any idea how many novels are started, just to taper off when writers block hits, a challenging life moment comes, or the idea loses its luster. But not yours. You finished.

2. But keep your head in the game.

The first draft is maybe 75 percent of the process…but that last 25 percent is the most important. That last 25 percent can be getting published and getting lost in the sludge pile. This is a crucial turning point for your manuscript, so stay focused and keep doing the work.

3. A rough draft is a hot mess.

Really, a total mess. But then, well, that’s exactly what a rough draft is supposed to be. Embrace it. Accept the mess. Shape it into the amazing story it’s meant to be.

4. But it’s not as bad as you think.

Sure, rough drafts are a mess. But they’re also almost definitely way better than you’ve worked up in your head. When you look back all you can remember is those painful hours spent wrestling with writer’s block and forcing out word after word. You expect to plow your way through with a permanent wince on your face, but have heart. It’s more likely you’ll be sighing with relief and thinking, “This is way better than I thought.”

5. You probably forgot a lot of what you wrote.

And when you’re creating an entire, complex story along the way, well, sometimes those ideas just get lost in the deluge. A handful of “did I even write this?” moments lie ahead. Like a box of chocolates, some of those forgotten ideas will be full of gooey delicious caramel story potential. Others are more like Krispy bar, and you just toss them away.

6. Put the red pen down and back away slowly.

Don’t edit your work on your first read-through of the draft. Instead, use this as a time for review and brainstorming. I used a combination of comment bubbles in Word and written notes to compile a series of questions, new thoughts, inconsistencies, and whatever else came up, so that they were separate for later reference.

7. Your plot is still baking.

When my rough draft was finished, I was about 10,000 words short of a full manuscript length, and about two-thirds of the way to my final plot. This is to be expected. The rough draft is essentially a brain dump, letting you get those idea-seeds out of your head and onto the page where they can bloom. And this clears your head to create new ideas and build from round one.

8. Hold off on the finer points.

Don’t worry about hitting the missing commas or running spellcheck yet. There’s a lot of big-picture stuff to get in order before you start fussing around with this. Trust me.

9. Move mountains.

So then what should you be doing? Now that you’ve got the story out, you get to go back and play director. Finesse the timeline, round out your characters, weave in and tie up your plot threads, bring your setting got life. This is that last third of the plot I mentioned in #7. And it’s honestly the most fun part of the entire novel writing process.

10. You’ve totally got this.

It can be really frustrating and sometimes it all seems like too much. At least once, you’re sure to think, this manuscript just needs too much work—I’d be better off forgetting about it and starting something new. But don’t listen to that voice!

Because if you can get through a complete rough draft, you’ve got what it takes to see it to the finish line.

What's the first thing you do after finishing a rough draft? Let us know in the comments section.


Getting started on reviewing your work is the hardest part—once you get started you realize it isn’t as bad as you think. Review a section of your work in progress or recent completed draft. How does it read? How can you improve it? What does this section still need? Take fifteen minutes and get to work on it. Then, share your updated work in the comments.

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

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