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?”
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.
- Sit down.*
*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.
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 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.
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.
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:
- Sit down.
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.
How is your first draft going? Here are three things you can do to move it along:
Take fifteen minutes to . . .
- Write down what your book or story is about.
- Or, write on your work in progress.
- 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.