Why Fast First Drafts Aren’t for Everyone

by Emily Wenstrom | 20 comments

When writing first drafts, a common piece of advice is write fast—just get those ideas on the page so you can take a proper look at them before you start letting your editor start messing with them… Write fast, analyze later. NaNoWriMo is great for creating a structure to force this practice.

There’s some great reasoning behind this practice… but fast firsts aren’t for everyone.

fast first drafts

Image by Kiran Foster (Creative Commons). Adapted by The Write Practice.

Fast First Drafts, Sloppy First Drafts

When I first started writing novels, I pushed myself to follow the fast firsts principle. I whipped through my first draft and focused on just getting what I had in my mind on the page, shoving aside the questions and red flags that my inner editor wanted to investigate. And sure, it was satisfying to whip through that draft in a few months and have draft finished.

But when I went back to look at it, I realized something. I’d just poured countless hours into getting my story down, but it still lacked critical pieces of backstory, character development, even some plot structure.

I had a ton of work ahead of me. It took longer to go back and address these issues than it would have to think things through in the first place.

The Merits of Slow

I did it the hard way, but I learned my lesson: Fast firsts just aren’t for me. I’m more of a plodder. So the next time around, I slowed down. I listened to my inner editor and let myself think while I wrote.

It took decidedly longer to draft this way. I even got stuck a few times as a wrestled with big questions about world building and character development. But all in all, the draft I ended up with was much stronger. I still had revisions to make after, but it wasn’t nearly as painful.

How to Fight the Temptation of Fast

The problem with the fast first is that in the pressure to get the story down, I ended up sacrificing thoughtfulness. Now, to resist the temptation to draft fast without reflection, I do some some brainstorming and outlining before I start stringing the sentences together.

Outlining helps me flesh out what I’ve got in my head and identify what’s missing. It enables me think things through beforehand and saves me a lot of pain later. It stops me from digging myself into so many holes.

Finding Your Own ‘Right Way’

Writing is an art. which means theres as many ways to do it as we can imagine to do it. Sometimes tips people share about how they do their writing morphs into a sense that this is the one “right” way. There is no right way. Write your first draft the way that works for you.

The fast first is tempting—when you start getting your story on the page, you’re excited. That shiny new idea is buzzing in your head and itching to get out. But don’t let the race to finish your draft stop you from thinking your story through.

How do you write your first drafts? Fast or slow? Share in the comments.


Today, try to practice writing the opposite way you're used to. If you normally write fast first drafts, write slow and carefully. If you normally write slow first drafts, write as fast as you can, regardless of typos and disorganized thoughts.

Practice writing this way for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback on a few practices by other writers.

Happy writing!

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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.


  1. Beth Turnage

    Thank you for this. I like to plod through my draft, and then circle around and go over it again, section by section. I tried writing the fast first draft, but I hate it. I don’t like what I have on the page, and I feel like I’m rushing down the freeway at a hundred miles per hour.

  2. Diane Turner

    Bless you! Bless you! Bless you! So much is written on blogs, websites, and in books about the value of a fast first draft. I am by nature a plodder, and writing fast makes me anxious and feeling out of control. Thanks so much for this post.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Thanks Diane 🙂 I had to learn the hard way to let myself use a writing process that worked for ME. Since I learned to let myself take my time, I’m much happier with my work. Plodders unite!

  3. AlexBrantham

    Great post! I flew through NaNo last year and ended up with 50,000 words of low quality gibberish. I think there are some good ideas in there somewhere, but getting them out is really hard.

    Ten days into this year’s NaNo and I’m already at 25,000 words, and they are much, much stronger. The words are coming onto the page at a good rate, much less painfully than they did last time, and of far better quality.

    The difference is in the outlining: last year I had almost none. This year, I’ve spent months sketching and outlining, then revising the outline again and again until I had something that looked right.

    Now I’m writing fast AND well. All it took was the preparation!

    • Emily Wenstrom

      I’m a huuuuuge fan of the outline these days 🙂 Good luck with the rest of your NaNo, Alex.

  4. Marcy Mason McKay

    You’re SO right about this. I landed a literary agent for my fourth novel. She loved the character, she adored the concept, but the plot needed to be taken up about a thousand notches. I went back to a blank page one and rewrote 400 new pages.

    Never again. I’ll will write slower from now on. That’s what works best for me.

  5. Joe Sewell

    I did NaNo back in 2010. I found myself finished with the story I had originally thought up with over 20,000 words left to go. I went “stream of consciousness” and came up with what was essentially a second story to add on to the first. I took advantage of the introduction of a time loop by brainlessly replicating major portions of a chapter, but modifying it subtly along the way.

    When I tried to go back and fix it up, I couldn’t! The train of thought had never run right, so it was a train wreck with few survivors. I did send it out to a few people, who enjoyed it, but I know “real readers” would’ve hated it.

    I’m a software engineer by vocation, and I tend to write the same way. I have to have a concept in mind first, then I fill in the details. A boss once told me that it took me longer to get the first version done, but I rarely had to go back and do a second one. While composing prose is a bit different, it still has that mix of art and engineering. For me, the first draft is often the final one.

    Take this comment, for example. I’ve tweaked it already a bit, but mainly a word here and there. More of it is already in my brain, but the process of converting it to English, then to properly spelled English, is my own editing. What you see is what I’m posting. That’s what works best for me.

  6. Dawn Akemi

    OMG, thank you!!! The pressure to write fast, regardless of content, is everywhere. I simply can’t do it and end up feeling guilty for small word count progressions. No more worrying about fast writing. I surrender to plodderdom!

  7. Leslie Miller

    I tried fast drafting once, and wound up with a lot of low quality writing and a story that was really hard to revise. The problem was when I wasn’t quite sure what to write, I just pushed through it and kept going, instead of letting the idea percolate and mature.

    I’m so glad you wrote this post, because the pressure to fast draft and crank out several books a year is everywhere. But I have learned the hard way that it’s not for me. If I can only do one book a year, but it’s a terrifically written book, that will just have to do…

  8. Lorey Lyons

    This is just what I needed to read! This is my first year to try Nano, and I started a week into November and I feel like I’m bashing my head against a wall. Trying to just toss some words down is actually tripping me up! While I don’t feel each scene has to be *perfect* before moving on, for me, it does have to have the right “flow”. Thanks so much for this!

  9. Ani

    Interesting… I am just the opposite. I can’t write slow… either I can’t write at all, or I write a novel in maximum 2 months. But yes, I absolutely agree that everyone has to find his own way. The key is to feel comfortable about his chosen approach.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      I always find the vast differences in creative processes so interesting. It’s great that you have learned what works for you.

  10. Bunk

    “We can’t let her die she is all we have” I said standing in a windswept valley. The moon above me yielding her light. “Cancer is ripping through her body” He replied. “I know that but I don’t want to stand on the dock in Kilika watching her Sending” I responded. I called down the airship it was time to leave this place. Soon we were aboard once more. I went immediately to her room. She smiled weakly up at me as I knelt beside her. “You deserved more” I whispered sadly into her ear. “I got you I have more then enough” She replied. “I wish the Fayth could kill this evil within you” I lamented. “Yevon cannot help me the Fayth call me to the Farplane” She said. “Do not say that there is still a chance we can heal you somehow” I told her giving her a gentle hug. “I want you to be whole not hurting” I told her. I will be broken if I lose her. I cannot entertain the thought of carrying her in my arms to a Summoner. Who will bear her to a place I can visit but not live. Even if this horrid fate befalls me I am hers wherever she is.

  11. Annika Smith

    I do prefer to write my first drafts fast – but I spend a full month, at least, planning it out beforehand. I outline thoroughly, estimate goal word counts, write up character and setting sketches, create a timeline, brainstorm, worldbuild, pin character quotes and pictures on Pinterest. . .and if I still come across things I didn’t plan out while writing, I leave a comment to myself about it in the draft, then move on. It’s worked pretty well so far, though I get that a lot of people hate doing that much planning.

  12. Natalie

    Yes!! Thank you for this post, Emily. Last year I participated in NaNo for the first time. I finished, but when I went back and read my draft, it was terrible. I was barely able to salvage any of it. I have spent the past four months or so working on a proper draft for this same novel. It may be slow going, and I’m not yet finished, but when I went back and read over some of the earlier scenes, I realized they’re actually decent. My characters are better-developed and the story is more compelling. Nothing wrong with fast first drafts if that works for you. But I’ve discovered it definitely doesn’t work for me. 🙂

  13. Andrew

    I generally agree with your process here. I don’t tend to outline prior to drafting things, especially during the mad dash that is NaNoWriMo. Many a NaNo has culminated with me writing myself into an utter corner.

    Then I took a few years off. My writing technique atrophied. Just managing 500 words a month (good lord) was often a struggle. And this is after I outlined an entire darn book.

    I’m currently on track to finish NaNoWriMo with 50,000 words this month. At almost 20,000 words in the past week and a half, that’s more than 6 times what I’ve written since the beginning of summer.

    And it’s crap. Terrible, embarrassing prose, with little blips added in when I haven’t decided on a character name or trait. God, it’s 110% a hot mess.

    But for the first time in years, I’m actually moving forward with my story. The revisions are going to be hellish, because my writing is JUST THAT BAD at the moment. But I came to the conclusion that I’d rather have 50,000 words of semi-coherent, rambling garbage than 500 beautifully tuned words. Hopefully once I get back into a regular routine of writing (and writing well, rather than this nonsense I’m churning out at present), I can return to my old outlines and use some of your advice to take it more slowly, as is my preference.

    TL;DR, great post. It may not work for everyone, but that’s the fun in practicing an art – everyone has a different method that works best for them.

  14. Ula HD

    I think outlining, prep work, and research make all the difference on how the first draft goes. Without them, the writing suffers and is painful, at least that’s been my experience. As I’m working through my first draft during NaNo this year, I am also leaving myself lots of notes. Things like research this, develop this, I think this scene needs to go in a different direction, or check this. Or I highlight areas I’m already finding problematic and I’ll get back to them in December.

    Great post and thanks for mentioning the last part. Everyone has to figure out what works best for them and the particular story they are working on.

  15. Ashlee Willis

    I’m much like you. I’ve always plodded along, which I believed saved me from much more extensive revisions. A friend who writes “fast firsts” told me I should try it that way. That’s the way I wrote my most recent book, and now that I’m into revisions, I’m regretting it already! So much work that I wouldn’t have had to do at all if I’d have merely sat and thought it out a bit more. Ugh. I will be going back to my plodding the next time around 🙂 Great article!

  16. Kirsten Armleder

    Thank you for this. I like to “plod through my writing.” It works for me, but after reading so many articles that tell writers not to edit as they write, I’ve always felt like my method was wrong. It’s true that you have to keep the editing and writing processes somewhat separate, but at the same time, you have to do what works best for you. I find that with my method, once I’m done, it only takes a few read-throughs and I’m ready to submit my story.

    Preparation is a good idea, too. Making an outline before I start writing helps me a lot. It gets the ideas organized and if I lose my train of thought while I’m writing, I can refer to my outline and get back on track.

  17. Joseph M

    I write my drafts fast. I usually set a goal for the individual chapters first, though, and I do do a bit of planning first. However, my approach is still faster than most I’ve seen.



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