Writing the first draft – Valuable lessons learnt

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When it comes to writing a first draft, I may be right in thinking that a lot of people put an unhealthy amount of pressure on themselves to write a smashing one. My sister and I have both been guilty of this and I’m positive that we are not alone.

Now I am not far from completing my first ever first draft, I’d like to share with you some things I have learnt throughout the process that might prevent you from throwing your computer out of the window, or throwing in the towel completely.

I’m sure you will notice a theme throughout this article, and one that is not a new one in the industry – first drafts are allowed to be rubbish. To explain, I have come across the idea of the ‘rubbish first draft’ multiple times, and I have referred to it lots on this blog. The first time I came across it was in Randy Ingermanson’s book Writing Fiction for Dummies, and it really has been one of the most valuable writing lessons I have learnt so far.

Like most articles, you may relate to everything I say with great enthusiasm – especially if you write like I do (a mixture of outlining/plotting and seat of the pants, followed by a full edit once the draft is complete). Even if you have a completely different style of writing and/or prefer to edit as you go, you may still find some of these points useful.

Finding #1  Too much pressure = avoidance and resentment

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Putting too much pressure on yourself to write a perfect or even a good first draft can lead to you avoiding writing completely. Bear in mind that a fear of failure can extinguish your writing dreams with much more gusto than writing a crappy draft ever could.

Additionally, constantly comparing your work to your high expectations can result in you hating it, and perhaps even questioning why you even started writing in the first place (Heather, I’m looking at you!). Remember, most authors go through many drafts that are far from perfect – it is a normal part of the process and one that can be enjoyable, if you let it. 

Finding #2  Getting bogged down with editing right at the beginning can take the fun and creativity out of writing

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I know all people work differently, so if you are the sort of person who edits as they go and it works for you then great. However, from my experience, I prefer keeping the first draft free of most editing. Don’t get me wrong, I do take time to plan my work so I have a solid foundation on which to work, however, the writing itself and the process of  ‘filling in the blanks’  is very much a free-for-all of creativity and ideas.

I like to keep editing to a minimum for a few reasons:

  • You leave yourself plenty to work with  I am under no illusions that editing a 100 000 word draft will be a small job or any less time consuming than if I were to edit as I go. However, as Joanna Penn cleverly said ‘you can’t edit a blank page.’ Personally, I prefer to have the words written and then go through the editing phase with the bigger picture in mind. I’d like to avoid spending excessive amounts of time editing every tiny detail that may end up being rendered obsolete in the end. 
  • A critical eye very early on can stifle creativity  I like to let the words flow out uncensored, even if it does turn out to be a little bit of a mess initially (evidence can be found here!). Like many people, I find that I am at my most creative when I am relaxed and allow myself to write rubbish. Needless to say, creativity is essential to writing, so I wholeheartedly stress the importance of creating an environment (both physical and mental) that allows your creativity to push through. FYI I am thankful for my critical eye – it will be extremely useful when I come to edit my manuscript – however, for the first draft I’d rather it minded its own business! 
  • I want writing to be fun  Part of what I am enjoying so much about the first draft stage is that – although I want to get it right in the end – right now, my story can be whatever I want it to be. Although I have placed some constraints within my planning so my writing has some necessary focus, I have complete freedom with the words I use to get from plot point to plot point. And it feels good (unless I have writers block that is). There is something about being able to write whatever you like, without having to worry if it makes sense, or if it is a perfectly written sentence that is freeing and euphoric. This doesn’t mean that the stages that follow the first draft will not be fun: editing, more editing, cover design, publishing ect. Some might be harder, some may be easier and they will all certainly require a different type of focus and approach, but I am sure that I will find a different sense of satisfaction and pleasure as I go through each of these stages. I welcome them with open arms and a willingness to learn.

Finding #3  Striking a balance between structure and freedom can work in your favour



If you like to write with no plan, keep doing it. If you like to fully outline your story to within an inch of its life and it works for you, then great. My chosen approach is a happy medium between the two – after all, life is all about balance!

I believe (and I know that this is very much down to personal preference) that it is necessary on a plot level to spend some time planning before writing – character planning, story world, general structure etc. – so you know roughly where the story is going and that what is written has focus. However, I think that at such an early stage the metaphors, nouns and adjectives you use to get to your plot points in your first draft largely do not matter. These can be crafted and rewritten to your hearts content when it comes to the edit(s). Also, by giving myself some freedom, I have found that I often stumble upon scenes and characters that have developed completely organically. To summarise, it is good to have guidance, but it is also good to follow your gut, even if it does occasionally lead you off of your planned path. 

To conclude:

Enjoy the process, have faith in your planning, allow your creativity to flow with little censorship and trust in your ability to edit out (and in) what is important. You are the creator after all.

Allowing myself to write a draft that is full of holes, hilariously bad and to be honest, a bit shit has been the most liberating and productive decision I could have made. Granted, it was initially a little bit traumatising at times due to the fact that I like everything to be organised and to fit neatly into clear steps and stages (not reflected in the tidiness of my bedroom I admit), but I got over it pretty quickly. 

My advice to you is to just write. Even if it’s rubbish sometimes (or the majority of the time!)  you might just surprise yourself. Enjoy the freedom that you have in your first draft, because the later stages of your story such as editing and proofreading will be much more restrictive.


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