Writing a First Draft: The No-Nonsense Guide for Authors

Do you need help with writing a first draft?

I once wrote the first draft of a book chapter that smelt so bad, I had to open up the office window while reading it.

It’s a good thing my first drafts are for me alone, and yours should be too.

“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” – Kurt Vonnegut

When you sit down to write the first draft, you may lack confidence or feel uninspired by what you’re about to do.

Today, it’s you alone wrestling with your ideas and stories, and if you pin one to the page or if procrastination pins you to the chair, nobody needs to know.

Most writers, even successful ones, don’t write good first drafts. They’re more concerned with getting the words out of their heads and onto the blank page. They know they can fix their writing later on during a subsequent rewrite or during the editing process.

You may feel like you’re writing with a crayon in your mouth, and that’s okay.

Most successful authors rarely experience white-hot inspiration and perfect prose while working on their first draft of a book.

Instead, there’s a determined soul plugging away at their manuscript, one sentence at a time, looking at their word-count or the clock and all the while thinking, “It’ll do for now. I’m almost there. I can fix this later.”

How to Write a First Draft: Work on It Every Day… Until It’s Done

Picture_of_Anthony_TrollopeThe 19th-century English author Anthony Trollope produced an astonishing 47 novels during his career, and he published two dozen of these while working in the General Post Office.

Trollope said about writing every day:

“”All those I think who has lived as literary men,– working daily as literary labourers,–will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.””

If Trollope completed a novel during his three-hour writing session, he took out a blank sheet of paper and started writing a draft of a new novel. Anthony wasn’t prone to angst and procrastination about his craft.

Successful authors like Trollope sit down in front of the blank page almost every day, not just on the weekends or when inspiration strikes.

They do the work because writing is their job and not just a hobby. They write more lousy first drafts than amateurs… and they learn what works and what doesn’t.

Now, I’m no Antony Trollope, but here’s the creative workflow I use to chip away at an intimidating first draft for a non-fiction book.

  • I go to a quiet room, office, library or coffee shop.
  • Depending on where I am, I brew/order a cup of coffee.
  • I disconnect my computer from the internet.
  • I put my phone in airplane mode.
  • I open up Scrivener.
  • I arrange the outline for the chapter in question.
  • I set a timer for 30 minutes.
  • I write, keep my fingers moving and avoid stopping to edit myself (this is harder than it sounds).
  • When the buzzer sounds, I stand up and take a two-minute break.
  • After this break, I review my outline and notes.
  • I repeat two to four times until I hit the day’s word-count.

When you turn up in front of the blank page to write a first draft, forget your past accomplishments and failures. You may have written a hundred, a thousand, or even ten thousand words yesterday. Or maybe you didn’t write at all.

Today, you just have to write a lousy first draft… because there are no good first drafts. The job of a first draft is only to exist.

You can fix all those messy mistakes, take out what doesn’t work, and put in what’s needed during the second, third, and fourth drafts.

How Do You Start a Rough First Draft?

I recommend not starting your first draft on page one.

Here’s why:

Many professional writers seem like they possess superpowers (Trollope, I’m looking at you).

When they sit down to write, they stack up chapter after chapter of their book and smash through daily word counts, something us mere mortals can only dream of.

So do these professionals possess some mysterious book-writing superpowers? Did a radioactive spider bite them while they were thumbing through between the dusty final pages of War and Peace?

Well, if you press a professional writer long enough, they’ll tell you that writing the beginning of a first draft is the hardest part.

An introduction to a non-fiction book, or even the beginning of a chapter, explains or sets up what’s about to happen. But how can you write an introduction if you don’t know what comes next?

Similarly, conclusions wrap up what they just said, but how can you write one if you don’t know what you just said!

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, it’s a perplexing conundrum that feels ripped straight from The Matrix.

Most professional writers don’t care much for conundrums, not when they have a deadline, kids to feed, and an overweight cat to manicure.

Instead, they lay out their notes and outlines (if they have them), and they look for an easy way into their first draft. Then, they often start in the middle of their book and write forwards…or backward.

Writing Your First Draft Tips

Opening up in the middle of your book will help you gain momentum faster. You could:

  • Start writing from chapter five or 25, or from anywhere that inspires you.
  • Start writing by saying something like, “Then, there I/he/she was…”
  • Begin in the middle of a sentence, paragraph, or idea.
  • Write as close to the end as you can get without stumping yourself.
  • Write about what you think of some research or findings for your book.
  • Write up an interview you completed for your book.
  • Write about a problem you or your readers are having that relates to your book.

(Write to Done also providing some helpful tips for writing that messy first draft)

Work through your first draft paragraph by paragraph, page by page, and cup of coffee by cup of coffee.

‘I Still Can’t Get Started!’

Have you ever looked at the blank page and found it difficult to get started? Well, it was Ernest Hemingway who said:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

It’s no wonder many new writers struggle when they start sitting down in front of the blank page regularly.

Try writing down a great first line by another author and work from there. Like any good writing prompt, it gets your hands moving and the words onto the page.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • ‘It felt like…’
  • ‘I remember when…’
  • ‘I learn that…’
  • ‘I made a terrible mistake by…’
  • ‘On my desk, I can see…”
  • ‘I remember when…’
  • ‘Let me guess…’

I recommend building a personal library of writing prompts that work for you over time. 

You can get these prompts in books you like reading, articles you enjoy, and even from the first pages of classic books. Pick one and keep writing!

On the other hand, if you’re writing an essay for the first time, decide on your priorities.
Prolific writers know how important it is to start writing quickly. So they go easy on themselves.

Ernest Hemingway famously stopped writing in the middle of a sentence so he’d know exactly where to resume the following day.

The American best-selling author Henry Miller was also a big believer in stopping before he ran out of ideas. He said:

“I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, do you see? I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have still things to say.”

When you do this, your subconscious brain will continue working on your first draft while you’re sleeping, working or showering. When you sit down to write the following day, you’ll find it much easier to pick up from where you left off.

What to Expect From Your First Draft

If you want to learn how to write a first draft, I’d like you to lower the bar.

Many writers call their first pass a rough draft or even the vomit draft. So don’t stop to edit yourself, straighten up your sentences, or to see if what you wrote sounds reasonable.

If you begin fixing your draft, you’ll engage a different part of your brain, the part that belongs to your inner editor.

Your editor has a place in the writing process but not when you’re trying to reach a target word count. He/She will want to censor your work and won’t care that you’re trying to hit a word count by the end of your writing session.

So expect misplaced apostrophes. Become friends with dangling modifiers. Invite those hackneyed characters to dinner.

Don’t be surprised when typos slip out and when some ideas are so clichéd that they make Days of Our Lives look like Hamlet.

Your first draft serves as a means of getting creative ideas onto the page. It takes many revisions to turn a first draft into something you can publish, and you’re going to do all that later on.

How Long Is a Good First Draft?

First drafts are as long as they need to be.

As a rule of thumb, a short non-fiction book is typically around 20,000 words, while a more traditional non-fiction book weighs in around 60,000 words. So:

  • If you write 1,000 words of your first draft a day, you’ll produce 6,000 words a week and still be able to take Sunday off.
  • If you write 6,000 words a week, you’ll have a draft finished somewhere between four and 10 weeks, depending on the length of your book.
  • If you write 6,000 words a week for a year, you’ll produce over 300,000 words, which is far longer than most popular non-fiction books.

Okay, you won’t be able to use a lot of your 300,000 words… but there’s gold in there. You’ll find it when you sift through your words, ideas and stories during the editing process.

Remember, your goal is to finish writing your first draft so that you have something to rewrite and edit. Avoid perfectionism at all costs because you can’t make money or find readers with something you never publish.

Rewriting Your First Draft

The pain of a first draft translates into the joy of rewriting it as a second, third or fourth draft.

While working on the second draft or third draft, you can gather more people around your writing and fix those messy mistakes. You can enlist unsuspecting family members, friends, an editor, and even first readers.

Depending on the genre and your level of expertise, you may rewrite a first draft once or many times.

For example, I typically rewrite a blog post or freelance article at least twice. After that diminishing returns sets in. However, I rewrite book chapters several more times based on feedback from others. I also rewrite short stories more than non-fiction articles as I’ve less experience with this genre, and I find creative writing more challenging.

While revising a first draft,  ask yourself:

  • Did I use the correct verbs and adverbs?
  • Is my point of view correct?
  • Can I insert a visual metaphor?
  • What are the weakest parts of this piece, and can I remove them?
  • What are the strongest parts of this piece, and can I improve them?
  • Is my introduction compelling?
  • Does my conclusion callback to the introduction in some way?
  • Have I checked my first draft for typos and grammar errors with a good grammar or plagiarism checker?
  • What plot holes should I fill?
  • Do I need to incorporate additional statistics and research?

You can create a self-editing checklist of common mistakes to fix in a piece of writing. However, over time, your inner editor will learn what to watch out for. Just remember: don’t write and edit a first draft at the same time!

A Note on Logistics

A first draft will cover your desk, floors, and even your walls. You’ve got to crack open a part of yourself and spill what’s inside on the page. You can’t do this if you’re working in chaos if you don’t know where anything is.

The American novelist John Cheever wrote most of his best works alone in a basement in New York wearing just a pair of boxers.

The British children’s author Roald Dahl wrote much of his work in a shed dedicated solely to writing at the back of his garden.

When the American poet Raymond Carver was starting off, he wrote on notepads in his car.

These men – as many professional writers like them do – all went to the same place regularly to work on their first drafts and novels.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have index cards on your desk, on the ground and your wall, stacks of well-worn books, and a bin overflowing with crumpled papers and wrappers from chocolate bars.

So you’re going to need a place to write… and to make a mess without being disturbed. Creativity demands lots of space, but by all means, tidy up when you’re done.

Knowing When Your First Draft Is Done

Raymond Carver was the type of writer who spent weeks, months, or even years working on his poetry and short stories, and even he recognized the value of writing his first drafts quickly.

He said:

“It doesn’t take that long to do the first draft of the story, that usually happens in one sitting, but it does take a while to do the various versions of the story. I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story.”

So please don’t overburden your first draft with expectations.

All of that can come later when you rewrite and edit your book. Once you’ve finished the first draft of your book, you can take the crayon out of your mouth and relax.

Now, you have a body of writing that you can mold and shape into something your readers will enjoy.

Write a First Draft FAQs

How do you write a first draft quickly?

Write in a quiet room without interruption at the same time for at least thirty minutes every day. Start in the middle of your first draft rather than at the beginning or end. Don’t stop to edit yourself or fix typos and grammar mistakes. If you get stuck, try a writing prompt.

How do I finish my first draft?

Set a target word-count and work towards it until done. Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect or error-free. Its only job is to exist so you can edit and fix mistakes with the help of an editor.

How many drafts do authors write?

Accomplished best-selling authors like Stephen King may only write one or two drafts as they are able to get their ideas and stories out quickly and easily. Newer writers may write many more drafts until they gain competence and experience.

Are first drafts bad?

First drafts are often referred to as a vomit or rough draft. That’s because they often contain mistakes and errors. That doesn’t mean they are bad. They are simply ready for a rewrite. The first draft’s only job is to exist.

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