How to Write a First Draft

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Do you have a book inside of you?

No, I didn't mean, “Did you eat a book?” I meant, “Is there a book you have always wanted to write?”

How to Write a First Draft

Learning how to write a first draft is on the top of my list of things to do. The second item on my list is—clean the seven litter boxes.

How to Write a First Draft

I have several books inside of me. And they will stay inside of me until I can figure how to write a first draft.

When I want to learn something I go online and search. Just now, I searched on Google, “How to write a first draft.” There were eighty-eight million, four hundred thousand results in 0.58 seconds. Now there will be eighty-eight million, four hundred thousand and one.

With that many results, you can probably guess that there are lots of different techniques to write a first draft. Writers approach how they write their first draft in a variety of ways. Some writers plot the entire story before they start to write, while other writers start writing and let the muse write the story.

But, no matter how writers approach telling their story, they all have one thing in common. To write their stories they have to . . . sit down and write.

Two Steps to Write a First Draft

Perhaps you are the kind of person who likes to have a step-by-step list of things to follow. To help you, I have put together a list of steps for how to write a first draft.

  1. Sit down.*
  2. Write.

*This step is optional.

Wait. That's too simple. There must be more to writing a first draft, you say.

No, that's it. Really, that's all you need to do.

redchari

What Writing is Not

Thinking about writing, buying books on writing, talking about writing, listening to podcasts about writing, attending writing conferences, dreaming about writing, getting a tattoo about writing, watching movies about writing, talking to your cat about writing—none of those activities will write your book.

Yes, I know I have to sit down and write. That part is obvious, but how do I actually write the first draft? Can you help me? you ask.

Yes, I can! I am learning how to write first drafts right along with you.

8 Tips for Writing Your First Draft

These techniques can help make writing your first draft easier. Just remember, the ONLY thing you absolutely must do in order to finish your first draft is . . . write.

1. Figure out your story first.

Matthew Quirk, the New York Times bestselling author of The 500, figures out his story before he starts writing. He understands what conventions the thriller has, and he makes sure he has all of them in his book.

Having a solid arc from the beginning to end of your book doesn’t dumb it down or make it formulaic. It makes it an incredibly strong, compelling structure upon which you can build complex characters, or subplots, twists, or beautiful writing.

2. Write a logline for your book before you write the book.

Before you start writing your book, write the main idea of your story in a few sentences and share it with friends. Do their eyes glaze over as you describe how your cat saved the neighborhood from the rabid dog?

Having a clear idea of what you want to write will help you stay focused while you write your first draft. And having feedback from friends will save you from writing a story that is as interesting as a soggy piece of toast.

The logline is your story's code, its DNA, the one constant that has to be true. If it's good, if it has all the earmarks of a winning idea, then it should give you everything you need to guide you in writing the screenplay.

—Blake Snyder, Save The Cat

3. Do not look at any reference books while you are writing.

Stephen King suggests that you never look at a reference book while you are writing, as it breaks the writer's train of thought.

When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

4. Write “TK” as a placeholder.

If you aren't sure of a fact while you are writing, instead of searching for what to call a group of kittens, write “TK” in your manuscript and keep writing. You can also write “TK” as a placeholder for a scene you want to write in more detail later.

After your document is written, a quick search of “TK” will show you all of the places in your first draft you need to check facts or where you need to write in more detail.

Don't give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies distraction—an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day's idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type “TK” where your fact should go, as in “The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite.”

—Cory Doctorow, Writing in the Age of Distraction

5. Don't stop—keep writing until you reach the end.

Steven Pressfield, who writes about fighting resistance in his book The War of Art, says that momentum is everything in a first draft.

Strike fast. Strike hard. Stop for nothing till you reach the objective.

6. Do not rewrite, edit, or read your first draft until you have written the entire story.

Shawn Coyne, author of Story Grid, says rewriting or editing before you have completed the first draft will lead to despair. Editing sentences before the story is complete may make it harder to follow your train of thought with the story.

I cannot overemphasize how important it is NOT TO RE-WRITE your first draft. Until you reach its final two words . . . THE END.

7. Don’t get discouraged.

Your first draft will not be perfect, but don't let that discourage you. Keep writing.

Don't get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times.

—Ernest Hemingway

8. Have deadlines, accountability, incentives, and community.

Joe Bunting has been “writing” his book about his time in Paris for the last two years. Or, avoiding writing his book. Which is funny really, the writing guru who couldn't write.

Writing a first draft is hard, and it is tempting to take the easy route and quit writing. This is why you need something that will hold you accountable to finish.

Joe realized that he would not actually sit down and write his book unless he created deadlines and consequences to motivate himself. In order to help him meet his deadlines, he has surrounded himself with community that will hold him accountable.

The best thing about Joe's writing about his process is that he is honest, he admits his struggles, and he shares what he learns. You can learn more about his struggle and the structure he designed to help him finish his rough draft here.

computer

You Can Write a First Draft in 100 Days

You can set your own deadlines, have friends hold you accountable, create an incentive to motivate yourself, and share your writing with a friend.

Or, you can join a special community of writers who are committed to finishing their books in 100 days.

This fall, Joe Bunting and The Write Practice team will lead a group of writers through the process of writing their first drafts from start to finish in 100 days. They will provide the training, accountability, support, and community you need to persevere to the end. And by November 30th, the last day of NaNoWiMothingy (TK), these writers will have their first drafts finished.

Would you like to join this community and and finish your book in the next 100 days? You can learn more and sign up here. Early registration ends tomorrow, Wednesday, August 17th, at midnight Pacific time. On Thursday, the price will go up, so you'll want to sign up soon.

Write the Book Inside You

Now we have the tools to write our first draft. May the books inside of you be written. No one else can tell your story. It's up to you. Now, it's time to do two things:

  1. Sit down.
  2. Write.

Do you have tips to share about how to write a first draft? Please tell me in the comments section. I would love to know what you think.

PRACTICE

How is your first draft going? Here are three things you can do to move it along:

Take fifteen minutes to . . .

  1. Write down what your book or story is about.
  2. Or, write on your work in progress.
  3. Or, write about how you feel about your first draft, and let us encourage you not to give up.

Whatever you choose to write, when you're finished, share it in the comments and leave feedback for other writers.

xo
Pamela

Pamela writes stories about art and creativity to help you become the artist you were meant to be. She would love to meet you at pamelahodges.com.

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39 Comments

  1. Dave Cenker

    I used to think that cleaning our three litter boxes was more difficult than writing a first draft, but now I see that I don’t have things that bad – even if I have to clean the three litter boxes twice because said cats won’t use it until it’s clean 🙂 Alas, I digress.

    I love these recommendations and can vouch that they all work (or don’t work) depending upon who you are and how you operate. That’s not a bad thing at all. I think it’s just important to be self-aware as to what works for you and what doesn’t. As you say, there are a gazillion different ways to go about writing a first draft. Finding the way that works best for you is probably a combination of all the great suggestions you’ve made in different times and places – along with some that aren’t here and are yet to be discovered. Ironically, sometimes talking to my cat does actually help 🙂

    One thing that I have personally found extremely helpful is adapting the process – on a smaller level. Instead of aspiring to writing a 50,000+ word manuscript at first, how about working up to it using the same process and recommendations. Start with a piece of flash fiction, work up to a short story, then a novella, and eventually onward to the novel length material. Success breeds confidence, and confidence in turn breeds success. I’ve found that by focusing on small steps and patient perseverance, I have been able to work up to completing my first manuscript draft during NaNoWriMo 2015.

    But, as you so aptly stated, you can give all the suggestions in the world. But, if you don’t actually write, you will have no book to edit. It’s called a rough draft for a reason, right? Give yourself permission to write gibberish at times and you may be surprised at the magic that evolves.

    Now, about that writing tattoo …

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hi Dave,
      So nice to meet you. Now, what is your cat’s name? My cat’s are: Harper, Charlie, Nepeta, JR, Oscar and Cleo.
      I love your suggestion to start small. I still haven’t cleaned the litter boxes today. But, I have written. What do you write?
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
      • Dave Cenker

        Three litter boxes for four cats – Jewels, Luna, Moo, and Muffin (a.k.a. Voldemort). Ironically, all four cats fit nicely into each of the four houses at Hogwarts. You might imagine where our little Muffin belongs 😉

        I primarily write romantic fiction – not necessarily the Harlequin type, but more along a Nicholas Sparks or Jojo Moyes vein. I have my first manuscript in the hands of an editor now, but really enjoy writing short stories also and distributing them to members of my author community.

        It’s ironic that this post came up today because I have been struggling with trying to get this whole “process” done at once with my short stories – conceiving an idea, writing a draft, and polishing it for publishing – in a single sitting. Yikes, talk about stress …

        I’ve been trying to focus more on breaking the process up into smaller and more manageable steps – something that I think can probably be applied to all writing projects, especially when they get to be lengthier in nature!

        Like you, I have yet to clean the litter, but I have completed my writing for the day – just don’t let the cats know about my priorities, lest they retaliate in ways yet unknown 😉

        Reply
        • Jonathan Hutchison

          It’s great to know there are lots of cat lovers out there. We recently lost the last of four brother cats (The Marx Brothers). As was in real life, Groucho was last. After our hearts are repaired we will probably start up again. Cats are amazing creatures.

          Reply
          • Harper Hodges

            Hello Jonathan,
            I am so sorry to hear about the death of Groucho and your other cats. May you find comfort in your time of deep loss. I live with five other cats. We just adopted two from a litter of seven kittens we fostered.
            Wishing you all my best,
            xo
            Love Harper
            p.s. Now is kitten season if you want to foster a litter of cats. They are too small to be adopted and they need to be socialized and loved.

          • Jonathan Hutchison

            Thanks, it’s almost time to open up the house again to those pesky little pets that take over so quickly. Thanks
            Jon

        • Pamela Hodges

          Hi Dave,
          Love your cats names. Your writing sounds interesting. How exciting to have your first manuscript in the hands of an editor. A small break before draft 2.
          Hello to your cats.
          xo
          Pamela

          Reply
      • Dave Cenker

        Hi Pamela,
        I meant to ask you also … what type of writing do you enjoy? And, is it weird to say that when I was cleaning out the litter boxes last night, I smiled when I felt reminded to respect my writing process? Sometimes a little sarcasm and humor can be just the motivating trigger you need, right? 😉

        Reply
        • Pamela Hodges

          Hi Dave,
          Interesting question. What do I “enjoy” writing, because I don’t always enjoy the writing I do. My favorite writing is to type for my cat Harper, on her blog. And I illustrated and designed a book my other cat, Pooh, wrote. “How to Be a Cat.”

          Reply
    • Jonathan Hutchison

      Dave,
      You must have been reading my mind. I commented above before I got to your thoughts posted here but I too have found that I am going to be more comfortable starting slowly and working up to something larger. I have two chapters for a larger work, but I am setting that aside until a later date.

      Reply
      • Dave Cenker

        Thanks for the reply, Jonathan! I must admit that it’s easier said than done, having the discipline to put something aside for later. Sometimes, I feel the need to have a complete story written by the end of a writing session. It can be “disconcerting” to have an unfinished piece of writing hanging in the balance. But, it’s good practice (for me, at least) because it is extremely unlikely that you are going to complete an entire novel in a single sitting (hey, never say impossible, right?) 🙂 And, I’ve found that sometimes, stopping short right before a critical shifting point in a story is a good way to pick up right where you left off during your next session. Best wishes with your future work – what type of writing do you enjoy?

        Reply
  2. Cynthia Franks

    Great post! I love the TK thing. I always preach not to do any research while writing a first draft. I recommend waiting until draft 3 or 4. To many writers get sucked down the Blackhole of research and are never seen again.

    Reply
    • Tina

      I am trying to keep it to a minimum for a change, this time.
      Maybe Harper has the better idea. Me? Compulsive googler in the house.

      Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hi Cynthia,
      That’s a good idea to wait longer to do research. I am forever getting lost while I try and finish my first draft.
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
  3. Harper Hodges

    I need help to write my first draft because I don’t have any thumbs.
    xo
    Love Harper

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      It’s okay Harper, I will type for you.
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
    • Tina

      I feel sorry for you, cat Harper; you can’t thumb (or retract your claws in time—touchscreens, remember?) to page through gobs and gobs of research. I did find in my research that my main character’s career is actually a source of some intrigue.
      When I get back to writing, that is.
      Actually, that could be something to envy about a cat that writes.

      Reply
      • Harper Hodges

        Hello Tina,
        Thank you for your compassion about my inability to type I hope your main character is having a nice day today, and that work is going well.
        All my best,
        xo
        Love Harper

        Reply
  4. Melody

    I got 32,000 words into my first draft and then burned out.
    Literally hated it and started again. On 18,000 words of new draft now.
    I’m trying to complete it before the end of August so I’m about 7000 words behind.

    Reply
    • Jonathan Hutchison

      What did you do with the first 32,000 word piece? Will it ever be resurrected?

      Reply
    • Omprakash Kshatriya

      बहुत ही काटछांट की गई. वाकई रचनाकार ने बहुत मेहनत की है. किसी रचना को एकचौथाई रखना बहुत मेहनत मांगता है.

      Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hi Melody,
      How is it going today? Do you set a daily word count?
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
    • Sefton

      Ha that’s happened to me this year, I am now calling my first draft complete at 80000 words knowing that my second draft will in effect be a whole new book. Yikes, but never mind, because I’ve learned a lot.

      Reply
  5. Jonathan Hutchison

    I appreciate this article because the things it suggests are not the things I am doing. I especially get distracted trying to make the first draft the perfect draft. That wears me down and discouragement settles in. Even with a logline, a synopsis and a rough outline I sometimes get lost in details or taking trips away from what I have planned because I think I have a better idea. I am also finding out that I’d prefer to concentrate on my blog and short stories rather than taking on a full blown story/novel. I have been at this for about a month and it feels good to finally have an idea of where I want to put my energy.

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hi Jonathan,
      Glad the article was helpful. I am horrible at finishing a first draft. There is a book project I have been working on for over three years, or should I say, “avoiding.” The research for this article will help me finish my book. Yippee!
      Glad to hear you have an idea where to focus your work now.
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
  6. Mawa Mahima

    I’ve just dedicated quite some time to my first draft and think that the TK tip is excellent (and it must be a lot more efficient then reading through the draft a billion times and still overlooking something you had wanted to work more on).
    I am currently working on a short story and am writing a lot more words then I want to! I’m spending a lot of time trying to “set the scene” before writing the actual scene so to speak, and it’s leaving me quite apprehensive when I think about how I’m going to (try to) deal with it after I’ve finished with the draft.
    Also, with the tip about carrying on with the draft while you still have momentum – what do you think is the best time limit to keep the draft under? I don’t want to spend months on the first draft, but I don’t think only allowing yourself a day to finish a first draft is realistic either.

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hi Mawa,
      Steven King said he tries to write the first draft of a novel in three months. But, he writes every day. I have been “trying” to write my first draft for three years, which means I don’t write on it very often. That is why I did the research for this article, so I could learn how to finish.
      Other writers say to completely write the first draft of a short story in one sitting, to keep the momentum going.
      How do you approach a short story?
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
      • Mawa Mahima

        Thanks for the reply Pamela!
        I think that I’m considering how to write each scene of the short story at different sittings. Because my short story involves a lot of changes in perspective/setting/mood I don’t want to write it all in one setting because I feel that I’d get halfway through and collapse from how exhausting it will become.
        Currently I am approaching my short story by writing one scene per sitting. Thankfully since it is a short story I should be finished with it in a week’s time!

        Reply
  7. Omprakash Kshatriya

    बहुत ही शानदार व उपयोगी जानकारी दी गई है. मैं अपने अनुभव से कह सकता हूँ कि यह जानकारी बहुत ही व्यवहारिक है.

    Reply
    • Omprakash Kshatriya

      आप इसे अपना कर अपनी पहली रचना आराम से लिख सकते है.

      Reply
  8. Christie Powell

    Instead of “TK”, I typed in “Scissors” whenever I had something I wanted to come back to. I just chose a random word that I knew was unlikely to show up in the rest of the text. Then I typed in “Scissor Mountains”, indicating that I wanted to think up a name for the mountain range later. Well, I actually liked that, so in my first book you can actually read about the Scissor Mountains!
    Christie V Powell, author of ‘The Spectra Unearthed’.

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hi Christie,
      How funny. Scissor Mountains. That is great. I couldn’t use the word cat instead of TK because I write about cats.
      Thank you for sharing your process.
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
  9. Shux

    This is an amazing blog! First drafts are the hardest, but when you get past this you will be just fine.

    I have my own blog about creative writing and literature, do check it out. The link is,
    http://www.21stcenturycreativewriting.com/

    Reply
  10. Lizabetta

    I’m such a perfectionist, when I see that dotted red line under my words, I have to stop everything and fix it. It’s the worst habit ever. So when I started to write my first draft, I blindfolded myself so that I couldn’t see the screen. Helped so much!

    Reply
    • ahlam

      lol..that seems helpful

      Reply
  11. Alexandra

    I have this ideas that I struggle so much to put them in words. I have all these broken pieces that I don’t know how to put together. I worry so much about the background story and to have strong characters that I freeze and I can’t move forward. It’s becoming quite frustrating, honestly. Even when I set up a daily schedule I am distracted by things like “Oh wait, I should probably learn some new words to expand my vocabulary” or “But I don’t know the name of this character’s best friend!”

    Reply
  12. Rabbiya Farrukh

    What if your first draft is only 5% right? I mean, what if the majority of the stuff written is wrong?

    Reply
  13. Kylie15

    Chapter 1

    Have you ever wondered what it would be like if there was no December in
    the year. It would be really hard to believe that because December is
    the month where everyone is supposed to be happy. Where no one should
    die, no broken hearts, or broken families. December is the month of
    christmas, the month of love, joy and peace. These bad and good
    things are in the world and there are some families that are lucky to
    only have experienced the happy side of the month of December. But
    for other families it is a dream. For my family this dream would have
    came true just another couple of months and everything would have
    been perfect. But I learned very quickly that nothing can be perfect.

    To many people have good and bad things happen to them. Sometimes you
    expect it and then again sometimes you don’t. In my case a lot of bad
    things happened to me in December. Everything in my life was almost
    perfect, and all these terrible things piled on top of each other
    getting higher by the second. Even though I thought I had lost
    everything, I found people who cared about me even though they didn’t
    even know me. And by their kindness and great big loving hearts they
    changed me and helped get through the troubling December I had. These
    good people they had love, joy and peace in their lives they helped
    me realize that there is always someone out somewhere in the world
    that will love you. My name is Leah Snow and this is my story.

    Reply
    • Rejwan Shamsul Kabir

      Well, that was … beautiful.

      Reply

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