publishing · writing

Writing a first draft

I had someone ask a question recently about how to write a first draft and thought I’d do a blog post on this. The short answer is: you just have to write it! That’s not the most helpful piece of advice in the world, but it is the truth. Writing out that first draft can feel like pulling teeth at times – I’ve written three full length manuscripts now in total and there were points in all three where I had to really force myself to keep going. Persistence, as they say, is key.

In addition to the basic fact that you have to keep going, I do have a bit more to say on drafting. Every writer works differently, of course, so this is only my personal opinion and experience, but I found that I needed to just get everything down on the page and then essentially sort the editing part out afterwards. I found it much, much easier to revise and rework an existing manuscript than I did to actually type that manuscript in the first place (maybe that’s something to do with my day job!) and I also found that the more I wrote, the more ideas I had along the way. Some writers plot everything out (I did another post about this here) but I prefer to have the spark of an idea and maybe the bare bones of the storyline, and then I get very impatient to just start writing and see where it takes me. That does mean that I have to go back and do quite a lot of editing, but I enjoy that so I don’t mind.

Psychologically too I think there’s something to be said for feeling as though you have something to work with: a blank page can be very daunting. Once you have a decent chunk, you start to feel as though to turn back now would be a real waste of time, so the compulsion to actually finish your first draft becomes stronger and stronger as your word count goes up. That’s why I’m an advocate of getting your first draft down, and moving things around if needs be once you’ve got 80,000 words or so to play with.

The other thing I find helpful when writing first drafts is having a word count. For a while, I wrote 1000 words a day of my manuscript, and I would email daily versions of it to myself to make sure I had it saved. In the email subject line I wrote: ‘only 1000 more words’ or ’30 more days to go!’ – like little pep talks to myself (quite embarrassing to admit, really, but they helped!) I set myself a deadline of when I wanted the first draft to be completed by, and then I worked out how many words per day I’d need to write to achieve that. Then every day I knew I was a tiny bit closer to my goal. If I had to miss a day (which I often did, because I’m not that disciplined and I wanted to go to the pub quite a lot) I then tried to make up for it on another day in the same week, so that even if my final deadline slipped a little bit, it didn’t slip by more than a week or two. NB this is before my book was published – if you have deadlines that are actually set by a publisher, do try not to miss those!

Lots of writers call the first draft the ‘vomit draft’ (lovely) and I suppose in a way it is, but I don’t think it’s all bad. Sometimes, a first draft is where you’ll have really great ideas, or snappy lines of dialogue that you’re actually proud of. Occasionally, they might not make it into your final manuscript but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them in a different one further down the line. The draft is there for you to get all those ideas out, and create your book, and then the editing process is for ironing out all the mistakes you made in the first draft, honing your dialogue down, and even moving whole scenes or chapters around (I do that quite a lot). It’s a good idea to have another word document open in which you can copy and paste parts of your manuscript that you want to take out or reconsider – make sure to save this so you can revisit them. You don’t always have to write your draft in chronological order, either; I find it helpful to give myself that flexibility, so that if a scene is becoming tricky, I can move to another one or jump to the end of the book if I already know what I want that to be. I also prefer not to number my chapters until the end, because they’re bound to change between drafts and it becomes confusing otherwise (you end up with multiple chapter twelves, which is what happened in The Doll House!)

Another thing I do in a first draft is leave XXXs in places where I know I need to do more research. For example, in the manuscript I recently finished writing, there are some areas where I needed the help of a medical professional to answer queries. At the time of writing the first draft, I was quite wrapped up in the storyline and I didn’t want to lose momentum by putting my laptop aside and going to hunt down a doctor, so I just wrote XXXs in place of important medical terms, and came back to fill in the gaps later. (Make sure you do fill in those gaps, though! No agent or editor really wants a book filled with blank spaces). I definitely think you should research if your novel needs it, but you don’t have to do it in the exact moment of writing, because it does put a bit of a stop to the creativity.

Depending on the genre of book you’re writing, it’s good to keep certain points in your head while you write the first draft – and it’s always good to have read widely in your genre before you start. For example, if you’re writing a commercial thriller, you can think about whether you want to include a twist. You can think about where your high point of conflict is going to be, and at which points you might start dropping red herrings. You don’t have to make concrete rules, but it’s worth having these things floating around in the back of your mind so that you can make sure you work towards them, at least to a certain extent. Of course, you can add these bits in later, but I think making sure that you’re aware that your book may need them is definitely useful. There are lots of plotting techniques found online which can help with this sort of thing – I personally find it harder to use formulas, and prefer as I say to write it all down and then apply any necessaries afterwards, but it’s interesting to be aware of the types of things readers of your chosen genre might have come to expect.

There is no magic formula for writing a first draft. I think you have to really, really want to finish a book and take it seriously. You have to be prepared to sometimes skip social events or spend the weekends on your laptop, but if you work at it, your word count will start to build up and you might even start to enjoy the process along the way (a bit, anyway!). It is possible to write a first draft around a full time job – I used to write after work in the evenings whilst babysitting too (the baby was in bed and I checked on him a lot)! and even though of course it was tiring, it was worth it and it felt exhilarating to get to the end of the last chapter. If you’re starting out writing, there’s probably nobody who is making you do it – there’s no employer giving you deadlines, no colleagues sending you reminders, and you’re pretty much on your own. So anything you can do to give yourself motivation (like my little email prompts to myself) is always to be encouraged. It also helps to think about all the great Netflix you can watch once you’ve finished.

I hope this helps anyone wading their way through a first draft, and thank you for visiting my blog! You can read the finished product of my first ever draft here: The Doll House.

9 thoughts on “Writing a first draft

  1. I think I write in much the same way you do – have an outline with a couple of sentences about what should happen in each chapter and then write, get the draft down, and then hack it around until it makes some sort of sense… Good blog, thanks for sharing.


  2. Interesting to hear your process Phoebe. Have you ever read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King? He describes a fairly similar process to yourself! Thanks for sharing.


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