5 Ways to Write A Near-Perfect First Draft

5 Ways to Write a Perfect First Draft (or Nearly)

5 Ways to Write A Near-Perfect First Draft“The first draft.” Is there any phrase more likely to evoke such a poignant mix of anticipation and dread?

Anticipation, of course, because we get to write—we get to tell our story!

And dread, of course, because we’re about to subject ourselves to months, even years, of agony and frustration as we blindly slog toward a finish line we aren’t even sure exists yet.

And then, when we reach that finish line, the manuscript we end up with is likely to be in such a disastrous state that we have to start all over again with equally difficult revisions.

That’s just how it is, right? No less than Ernest Hemingway colorfully and famously told us first drafts are never any good. Them’s the breaks, kid, deal with it.

Except—is that really true? Do first drafts have to turn out awful?

Well, maybe not if you’re a genius, right? Maybe not if your story sensibilities and writing skills are so mad all you have to do is touch your fingertips to the keyboard for perfection to come tumbling out like glittery little unicorns tap-dancing all over the keys.

Sadly, of course, that’s not you, and that’s not me. So  it looks like we’re just going to have to keep the ol’ stiff upper lip and continue churning out those rubbishy first drafts.

Except—nope. Today, I’m here to tell you that just about anyone can write a nearly perfect first draft.

Why We Like the Idea of the Rubbishy First Draft

Before you can even think about writing a perfect first draft, you first have to consciously address why so many writers believe it’s an impossible idea (kinda like Shangri-La or the Fountain of Youth).

Very few writers can read statements like Joyce Carol Oates’s Writing Tip #2 without at least a little part of us cheering raucously in commiseration:

First drafts are hell. Final drafts, paradise.

Why are we cheering?

Because we resonate, of course. We’ve all written horrible, miserable first drafts. It’s just nice to know we’re not alone. If Hemingway and Oates and so many other geniuses struggle with their first drafts, well, then, phew!, I guess I’m not doing so bad after all.

Also, bad first drafts are just part of the writing journey. When we start out (and perhaps for many years after), we are writing rubbish. Nothing wrong with that. (I won’t show you my early manuscripts if you promise not to show me yours.) But who says rubbishy first drafts can’t be just a part of the process? Who says you have to stay stuck in Ow-This-First-Draft-Hurts-So-Bad Land for the entirety of your writing career?

Lie That Tells a Truth John DufresneWho says that? All right, all right, so yeah, actually, there are a lot of respected writers who seem to say exactly that. For example, in his book The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne says:

Expecting too much from an early draft is the most common mistake beginning writers make, and it leads to frustration and disappointment…. You must allow yourself to fail. You only write a first draft in order to have something to revise.

To which, I would like to point out two things:

1. He says, “beginning writers”—not all writers until the end of time.

2. He says, “you only write a first draft to have something to revise.” Maybe yes, maybe no. That depends entirely on your process and your priorities—which we’re going to talk about in just a sec.

But then he goes on to say something very interesting:

Nelson Algren said he just kept writing until his story found its own plot. (I’d have to confess I work in the same inefficient way.)

Hmm, inefficient. That doesn’t sound like the end of the road to me. That sounds like a problem that can be solved!

4 Drawbacks of a Rubbishy First Draft

When you purposefully allow yourself to sit down and write a rubbishy first draft—on the notion that it’s going to create a better story in the long run—you may indeed garner some good returns.

For example, you may write faster and more intuitively. You may be more motivated to get words on paper, which, of course, is the whole sum of the game. You may find it easier to initially stymie your infernal internal editor. Some of you may even have more fun writing this way.

Nothing wrong with that. It’s important to know what you’re gaining by whatever methods you’re employing. But it’s also important to know what you’re sacrificing, so you can determine whether the gains and losses are balancing.

Here are four of the most common drawbacks writers encounter when writing purposefully rubbishy first drafts:

1. You Get a… Rubbishy First Draft

Obviously, the biggest drawback—as Hemingway, Oates, and Dufresne would all tell you—is that you don’t end up with a tight, clean manuscript. Rather, you’re much more likely to end up with that promised big fat mess.

2. You Wonder if You’re a Rubbishy Writer

The result of that rubbishy draft is that you’re very likely to look at it despairingly and fight depressing feelings that tell you you’re also a rubbishy writer. After all, the proof is in the pudding, right? Instead of feeling proud of your accomplishment when you start reading it over, you may instead find yourself wanting to just hide under the bed covers for a few days.

3. You’re Faced With Exhausting, Frustrating Revisions

But of course, you don’t hide. You’re a writer, and writers tend to suffer from that infamous Never-Never-Never-Give-Up compulsion. So you get out of bed and start editing the heck out of that slobby thing. And editing. And editing. And editing. And editing. It’s exhausting, and, even worse, it’s often frustrating because you still don’t have a clear idea of what went wrong or how to fix it. You’re just gutting your way through it.

4. Your Story Misses Out on Organic Perfection

Speculative novelist and publisher William Sloane pointed out:

More fiction fails because the author has not had the discipline and ingenuity to provide and sustain a means of perception than for any other single reason.

You will only ever get the chance to write one first draft. That draft is your single greatest opportunity to not just create cohesion and beauty, but to create them organically. Revisions are great—heaven knows we all need them—but they rarely match the energy and brilliance that emerges in that first chronological rush of storytelling.

5 Ways to Write an (All But) Perfect First Draft

I used to wholeheartedly believe in all that stuff about rubbishy first drafts. Mostly, I believed in it because I wrote rubbishy first drafts—and then slogged through the agony of difficult revisions.

But then something pretty cool started happening. About the time I started writing Book 8 of my current 11, my revisions started getting infinitely easier. Almost laughably easier.

Why?

Because my first drafts were so darn clean. There for a while, I started wondering if I had somehow turned into a delusional fathead. But, nope, my critique partners and editors were telling me pretty much the same thing. I still had to do revisions, of course. But they were edits, not rewrites. The final drafts of my last two novels have been extraordinarily close to the first drafts. And, what’s more, they were a blast to write.

This happened because I started rejecting the idea that first drafts couldn’t be excellent and started using the following five steps to help me plan and create the best possible first drafts I had in me. As acclaimed short story writer Brent van Staalduinen says:

There’s a beauty, I think, in writing quality first drafts. I’m loath to call them “rough,” because I write slowly and deliberately and enjoy readable early work. I’ve tried to write with a … first-draft abandon, but the work isn’t as satisfying.

1. Don’t Start With the First Draft

What’s the secret to writing a great first draft? Easy. You don’t start with the first draft. As we talked about last week, storytelling and writing are actually two entirely different skill sets. Too often, when we try to do them both at once in the first draft, they end up getting in each other’s way.

Stephen Covey explains:

…all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and physical (second) creation. The physical follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint.

That’s why outlining is such a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal. It allows you to organize your thoughts, consider the logical train of cause and effect in your plots, and create a road map before you jump into the wild dune buggy of actually putting beautiful words on paper.

2. Ask All the Right (and Hard) Questions

Storytelling is an equation of questions and answers. Something doesn’t make sense within the progression of our characters’ actions and reactions? All right, so we have to question that. We have to acknowledge the plot holes and find the right answers to fill them in.

This is not only vastly easier and less time-consuming in the outlining phase, it’s also more powerful. It allows you to bring your logical brain into play to examine your choices. Are you just copping to the first obvious answer that comes along—and writing away with it? Or are you taking a moment to really consider, not just the plot consequences of your choice, but also whether you’re digging as deep as possible for the single most creative and original possibility?

In the actual writing of the first draft, our brains are cluttered by a hundred different demands—to the point it’s easy to be too distracted to step back objectively and realize we’re not taking full advantage of all the possibilities.

3. Find and Harmonize Plot/Character/Theme

One of the chief reasons slapdash first drafts fail is that they have improperly presented the symbiotic triangle of plot, character, and theme. If the author wasn’t aware of any one of these going into the first draft, then she had to discover them in the first draft.

Plot + Character = Theme Infographic

This rarely happens in a cohesive way in a rushed first draft. The plot might be there from the beginning, but the character arc doesn’t become clear until halfway in, and the theme is then twisted around in an effort for it make sense in time for the climactic encounter.

Although this can (and, indeed, must) be fixed in revisions, you’ll never get the chance to do it as organically as you will during the initial writing of the first draft.

4. Organize Your Brain’s Tasks

The brain’s various facets don’t so much work simultaneously as they work in concert—pushing and pulling, each part in its proper place. The problem here is that the first draft is largely a creative endeavor. Logic requires us to step back out of the zone of rapid-fire word-crafting, so we can thoughtfully examine the big picture.

Because most writers instinctively understand that employing logic in the wrong place can easily throw them off their groove, they usually enter rubbishy first drafts through the door with the sign that says: Abandon Logic, All Ye Who Enter Here.

But, of course, you can no more write a good story without logic than you can without creativity.

This is why it’s valuable to do as much of your logical figurings-out as possible before you throw yourself into the intoxicating embrace of the word-crafting muse. Don’t tax your brain making it do things it doesn’t want to. Instead, work with it to optimize its abilities and output.

5. Trust Your Planning: Write Like the Wind

Okay, great, you say. But all that stuff isn’t actually about writing the first draft. What about that?

That, my friend, is now the easy part. That is where you sit down at the keyboard and you start typing like a gleeful lunatic.  You’ve already created a solid story. You’ve already answered your own most important questions: Does this work? How does this work? What plot pitfalls do I need to be aware of and how can I sidestep them?

The key now is to trust your planning. Don’t start second-guessing yourself. Write with exactly the same abandon you did before in your rubbish phase. No, actually, write with even more abandon. Write quickly, trust the organic process, and don’t get hung up on doubts.

Will you write a perfect first draft? No. You’ll still have typos, clunky sentences, and, yep, probably a few little plot holes that slipped through the cracks. But I guarantee you’ll have written a comparatively perfect first draft that requires far fewer revisions on the back end.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What was the most rubbishy draft you’ve ever written and what was the most perfect first draft you’ve ever written? What do you think made the difference? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’ve always been comforted to think that Hemingway didn’t churn out The Sun Also Rises in a single draft. But your advice resonates with me, and I think this is the reason I’ve only done NaNoWriMo once. It’s a valuable experience to learn how a story will accumulate if you just keep adding to it, and how quickly it can be done. But I haven’t used any of the draft I produced, and I don’t really intend to. Nor do I feel that I tricked myself into answering the difficult questions about the story. I just papered over the problems with my daily quota of words. It was a useful exercise, and not much more (for me).

    I don’t think it works for me to be intentionally rubbishy in the first draft. At some point, I have to concentrate on the page and put out my best work. And ideally, I should be doing this at every stage. (Otherwise, why am I writing in the first place?) Editing may help define the shape, but the stuff has to be there. I can’t keep pushing off the real work to the next stage. (And, I think this is how Hemingway’s advice is sometimes misinterpreted.)

    • My thoughts exactly. I’ve put off writing a first draft, because the editing of all that writing was so overwhelming to me. I wrote an outline a few months ago and add to it every so often, as I think of something else. I think I’m about ready to write.

      • Janice, this sounds similar to my process. There was a time when I used to feel guilty about not having written my main story yet, but the thing is, all my BEST ideas have grown over time. I wasn’t just being lazy when I thought the story wasn’t ready to be written yet — it really wasn’t. But it’s getting close. Where the not being lazy part comes into play — I have another story that is ready to be worked with, a contemporary story that needs to be played with in the actual language. And I have research I know I need to finish for the big story (scouring Norse mythology for shiny bits that fit into what I’m doing). It’s easier to see in retrospect that I’ve been working steadily on my story all this time, even when I wasn’t producing words in a draft.

        In any event, it seems like some advice is to just go ahead and get it on paper, and everything will work out. But I don’t think that’s true. A mess in my head, put down on paper, will still be a mess. That’s what I discovered when I did NaNo. And of course, outlining is the way to organize the mess in the head. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I agree with this, Evelyn. My best ideas are those that arise organically from my subconscious creative (in comparison to those that I chase after consciously). The longer I’m able to let a story “brew” in my head, the more great organic scenes emerge. Most of my stories cook in my head for years before I feel I’m ready to put them on paper.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve always liked Hemingway’s comment about how he had to write something like 37 endings to Farewell to Arms before he found the right one.

      There’s peace in that because it tells we don’t *have* to get it right the first time. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice when we do! 😀

  2. Delusional Fathead, wasn’t that the horse that won the Preakness in 2006?

  3. Huzzah! I’m all for this. Why spend years editing when you could reasonably spend a couple months? I used to really like that Hemmingway quote, but now I’ve written a descent first draft. I really think my next one could be a smooth success. It’s so liberating!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It is liberating! I think we sometimes succumb to the mindset that if writing isn’t hard, we’re doing something wrong. But that’s crazy. We should seek efficiency wherever possible.

  4. Alice Fleury says:

    thank you for this. I have always felt I was well, a failure because I don’t have a first draft written. I can’t leave crap on the page. I hate reading vomit. slipping and sliding through the stinking mess. So here I am almost to the middle. but at least I like what I’ve written. No its not perfect. But it has an order, and yes, I have all my major plot points. Some have changed in the process of writing this. And I know there will be revision. But I’m hoping not to be lost when revision finally happens. And yes I failed twice at nano. I hate giving myself a word count to finish.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s definitely a point at which we have to give ourselves permission to be rubbishy just to avoid the procrastination trap of perfectionism (and I’ve been there). But if we’re able to balance “perfecting” with actual “perfectionism,” some very good things can result.

    • I have similar problems. Sometimes they’re all in my head and sometimes they aren’t, but we do the best we can and that’s all we can do.

      It’s also important to understand and appreciate where you are in the 7 Stages of Being a Writer (another great post by Katie). If you’re in the early stages, then a pristine 1st draft is likely out of the question. Sure, my early drafts aren’t nearly as good as Katie’s but I’ve only completed one book so far.

      Remember to give yourself time to grow.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yes, please don’t forget I said my first drafts *got* better. They didn’t *start* better. :p

  5. Your writings changed my life.

  6. V. Wenel says:

    I always do almost-perfect first drafts. When I started writing, I didn’t even know there were ‘draftS’. (It was a long time ago, so maybe that’s the reason) I knew what I wanted/ needed to write, so I did it. Why waste time on something that’ll need so much work, when you can do it right in the first place? I do need heavy editing, of course (ESL), but I can’t remember when I had to change anything except minor details.
    When I write a scene, I go through it one more time to check is it doing what it ought to do, and that’s it – onto another.
    Only when I started actively visiting writing blogs, did I became aware that people don’t do it my way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although I firmly believe in the benefits of writers learning from writers, it’s also true that our well-meant advice often misleads one another. If nobody ever tells you your first draft should be rubbishy, well then, why should it be? :p

  7. My rubbishy first drafts are getting far less rubbishy as I go along. Thank heavens.

  8. The most rubbishy draft I’ve ever written was probably the YA contemporary I completely pantsed last NaNo. The characters were fun but the plot was all over the place and the ending wasn’t satisfactory. This pretty much marked the end of my pantsing period — when I was younger I used to be able to pants entire novellas completely in about a month or so. True, they weren’t publishable, but they storyline was cohesive and the acts were well-structured. Somehow.

    Case in point, my most functional first draft ever was a MG mystery novella I wrote when I was about 13. I plotted the first act out in about three sentences and went from there. I think this one worked so well because at age 13, MG mystery novels were about all I read. Plus I had fun with the characters, so it was never a drag to write. (I did open the story with someone waking up but…hey, was 13.)

  9. I thought that perfect first draft was an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or honest politician. It’s important to get a good first draft, but remember it’s not perfect. If you think it’s perfect, you won’t want to change it. If you know it’s not perfect, you’re more willing to change it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Well, since there’s no such thing as a perfect book, there’s definitely no such thing as perfect first draft. But *better* first drafts are certainly something to strive toward.

  10. Despite my foray into the world of pantsing, what you said sends me back to my instinctual days of trying to outline my novel. I even went so far as to try to snowflake it all out like Randy Ingermanson shows.

    I eventually gave it up because it was so creatively parching. (Surely that’s a thing!) I like what you say here about the different sides of the brain, and that’s me. My trouble is that my creative side muscles its way over and says, “Shut up, Logic, you’re boring.”

    Then research beckons and points both logic and creativity on a million rabbit trails. I’d love to get them all spinning the same direction, but my themes are so specific and potentially ire-raising that I want the history to be on point. So it’s slow going. I’d love to get it all straight. Methinks I have a lot of your back posts to catch up on! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In the last few years, I’ve come to a strong belief that the best writing emerges when we’re able to get both sides of our brains working in harmony. All logic all the time is dry and boring. All creativity all the time is sheer chaos. For me, the logical part of the process (i.e., outlining) *is* very creative. It’s not “zone” creativity like you get in the first draft, when the words and the story are just welling up out of your fingertips. But it’s a rush of controlled creativity that is thrilling.

      • Do you ever get stuck at the marathon of the middle…in your outline? My poor girl got stuck tied up and gagged, and I couldn’t think of a single thing that could plausibly land her across the ocean where I wanted her to go. Is that bad, to have an end and a beginning and no bridge in sight?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          When I get stuck like that, I outline backwards. If I know where I need to go, I start figuring out what has to happen to set that up.

          That, and sleeping on it usually helps. 🙂

  11. Peter Martin says:

    I submitted my final draft and a copy of first draft to a story editor and here are her comments.
    ‘I have been reading your two chapters – the revised and the original, for a few days now; I have to say, it is as though the two versions were written by completely different authors, indeed from different parts of the world!

    Your original version is written as one would expect an amateur (USA) to write … limited style, an excess of abbreviations, too many words with not enough information yet also seemingly trying to bombard the reader with an excessive word count as to not give them an opportunity to draw breath nor savour the story. There is no sophistication in the format and the pace is all over the place.

    I do not proffer this observation in an attempt to be cruel but rather to highlight what a remarkable journey you have clearly been on in your literary expertise.However, having now read the chapter in full, and with the proposed revisions in place, your words shout out professionalism …you write as one would hope an author should write – with style and grace; the pace is just right in so much as it allows the reader to see the characters grow without having their traits thrust in your face. I like your style of writing and that is not something an editor says freely!’
    It took me almost 3 years to reach this change and much of it is due to articles like these from your site. Thank you

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Woot! That’s awesome, Peter. Sounds like you’ve got a good editor, and you can get no better compliment than that. 🙂

  12. I like these reminders, and I love the encouragement that someday my rough drafts will be less rough. I know that my writing has improved extensively in the last ten years, but I can hardly wait to see how it continues to improve! Thank you for sharing this information. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Being able to look back on our previous drafts and recognize that they’re not as good as we once thought they are is a huge sign of growth! It means our good taste is expanding. 🙂

  13. My last novel (or perhaps novella — it’s only 180 pages) was the first I’d outlined before I started. Because I knew where I was going, I wrote it far faster than usual and each scene had a purpose. Sure, I had to tinker with the outline during the writing process, but not much and always to strengthen the characters or fill unforeseen plot holes. It took me two months to outline and six months to write, and it required very little editing to coax it into its final shape. As a result it was fun to write. I pantsed the novel before it, which was aborted three times and left to stew for two decades before I found the story. And that one still took three and a half years to write! I will never again begin a story without outlining first. The one line in your blog that really resonated with me was “storytelling and writing are actually two entirely different skill sets.” I’ve always been able to write an elegant sentence, but telling a story off-the-cuff is not my long suit. Outlining helps me tell the story in the strongest possible way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s great! I reject this whole idea that writers have to be miserable. Yes, writing is difficult, but if we’re not having fun, then we’re doing something wrong. 🙂

  14. I am one of those perfectionist writer types who can write fast but prefers to write more methodically, and has the tendency get pretty highly OCD when she senses she didn’t hit quite the note she was going for when completing the ‘first draft’ of a chapter or a scene. I will never stop echoing how FREEING it’s been to have an outline at the ready as I’m drafting the second novel of my series. And while it’s impossible to know every single detail about every single thing going into the draft even after planning it, I feel having that big picture makes more capable of hearing those ‘off-notes’ while I’m actually writing, and adapting with new ideas in the moment.

    Thus, an exponentially stronger draft, thus I don’t have to waste months hacking away at chapters trying to figure out what the problem is.

    Which to me makes the perfect drafting experience, despite whatever flaws still remain in the draft 🙂

  15. I try not to write a rubbishy first draft. My mindset is to get it right as much as possible the first time around. On the other hand, I often go back through my first draft while I’m still writing and make changes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, there’s definitely a difference between trying to get things right and beating yourself up for *not* getting them right.

  16. I’ve had my share of terrible first, (second, third,) drafts for short stories. I even sent a few of these to my old high school teacher who I remained friends with, with no response. But one day, I wrote a snippet of a few pages of dialogue I had been trying to plan out for the first time, and as a result I must say it is nice to read something of your own that you don’t think is torn and battered trash.

    If you ask me to speak my mind, I have to say that I’m struggling with my decision to major in English. I told myself I had no tolerance for practice as opposed to theory and abandoned the subject. Now I realize that this is only a drawback (at least in this art) when I won’t allow myself to fail by trying, at the risk of a week, a month, a year’s worth of reading/writing.

    Now I’m back in black like Johnny Cash, or getting there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve been writing seriously for almost twenty years. For most of those twenty years, I stunk. But I let myself have fun anyway, and I kept learning. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Keep writing. 🙂

  17. Ms. Albina says:

    Good article, I am going to revise my novella and also publish it after it is also edited. Do you self-publish your writing?

  18. I think this is my favorite post you’ve ever written, Katie, and I like a lot of your posts! I liked it so much that I saved it to the writing advice file I keep on my computer. 🙂 I really like the way you think. Yes, I’ve written my fair share of bad first drafts. I think all of us writers have. But it’s inspiring to know that there are things we can do to write cleaner drafts. For me, outlining has helped immensely! The more I outline, the better my drafts turn out. The different between my early, un-outlined work and my recent work is like night and day.

  19. Love this post! As a pantser who deeply understands story structure, my first drafts turn out “perfect” most (but not all) of the time. This helps me understand why. LOL! It’s mostly my subconscious–even when pantsing–having a good grasp of #3. 🙂

  20. Saja bo storm says:

    Great tips Katie. Thank you. I’ll continue to work harder so I won’t write ‘rubbish’. (smile). Elmore Leonard who wrote Glitz, Get Shorty, etc. sums up his 10 tips for successful writing by stating, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I like that advice. Do you?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve always taken Elmore’s advice to mean: “Avoid being pretentious.” To that end, I definitely agree.

  21. Christiania says:

    This is how I’ve been doing it so far. I write the ‘first draft’ with at least knowing all the major plot points and a vague idea of the theme and how I want the characters to develop, and then I write and write and write all the scenes that pop into my head and let the story go wherever it feels compelled. Then I don’t stop when I’ve finished the story, I stop when I feel I’ve written enough around that original skeleton and there’s no further I could go with the story without an intensive outline. So then I do that, break down and outline the story in great detail based on the original idea and what I’ve written so far, and then I start the ‘second draft’ by restructuring and filling in all the holes of what I haven’t written yet.

    It has worked for me so far, I think it lets me write without feeling to constrained and come with a lot of interesting directions, but still be completely workable into a coherent story once I sit down to give it more detail and structure, because I had the big points laid out before I began. But with my next story I am interested to trying detailed outlining first before anything.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for sharing! This is a great example of how outlining doesn’t *have* to be the first thing an author does. It can take place at just about any point in the process.

  22. I’ve bounced back and forth between pantsing and plotting, and finally landed hard on the plotting side after a few catastrophic first drafts. I’m hoping that the draft I’m working on now will definitely be better than the rewrites before it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Outlining, it itself, isn’t the only key to great first drafts. I’ve outlined some disasters as well. But once you’re at a place where you can pair preparation with an understanding of *how* to prepare, via solid structure, etc., really good things start happening.

  23. Joe Long says:

    I’m a perfectionist. I don’t want to wright rubbish, even if it’s the first draft. When I realized (about halfway through) that my first draft was pretty bad I went back to the beginning. Soon enough I stopped editing and was just writing it again, as I knew the story.

    I have everything outlined – some written, some mental, but it lacks the granular detail. I do those as I approach and then get to each scene. However, once I start writing that internal editor is going full bore and I want it to come out just right!

    What I’ve decided to do for the remainder of the book is go a scene at a time, from first draft to edited final version. The best way to turn off my editor was to tell myself I’m not writing the scene, I’m writing about it. So for a scene that will likely be around 3000 words within a half hour I spilled out about 600 words that described most of the action and recorded the dialogue that had been floating in my head. Then I can ponder it, identify what’s missing, highlight the plot points it has to convey, then dive into the expanded final writing.

    I hope that helps me pick up the pace, and the going back and forth from first draft to edit final version a scene at a time will keep me from getting bored doing the same thing endlessly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds very similar to what I did with Dreamlander. That was the book that irrevocably convinced me outlining was worth the time and effort.

  24. Thought provoking article, thank you!

    To your earlier point about writing and storytelling being different skills, when people speak of crappy first drafts I always thought they meant the writing (not the story). I’m a thorough outliner, too, so my stories rarely change much from first to final draft. But my first draft writing is awful, which I think is okay, no? They sound like they’re written by Tarzan. But if I constrained myself with worry about adverbs, passive voice, and present participles while I wrote, I would be paralyzed. Is “intentionally lousy” in the writing sense still a reasonable goal? Have you found that your first draft writing has also improved as your experience grew?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It depends on your priorities and what you’re trying to achieve in that first draft. In a lot of ways, my very in-depth 50+ page outlines are first drafts. As such, they’re *very* messy, scattered, and contain no real prose at all. But once I have that under my belt when I sit down to write the actual first draft, I want to create prose that is beautiful and as close to finished as possible. I want to capture the organic flow of the story’s first narrative incarnation, because I’ll never have that exact same chance again.

  25. Oh, confusing… I have no idea if I have a good or bad draft? Funny right! 🙂
    And you definitely shouldn’t dare to think its good!!!! 😀

    What is a bad-messy draft? When your story isn’t formed yet? My first draft is pretty tight on the story (i’m a storyteller ha,ha) but with a little or no prose. So far I had to change just a minor details to make few things more believable and add the prose.

    Its amazing how a ‘negative’ scene, that is much harder to write, can suddenly change into something really interesting competing even with a ‘good’ scene.
    I had also a wonderful new idea (that almost cages the concept of the book) when thinking of one scene… that it should be domino which it kind of wasn’t. Then I found the domino and it fitted so well into the other things that I wrote before like it had been already there before.

    Honestly, I’m just happy to have a draft :D… and I will be slogging on it forever anyway (with two kids and almost full time job), but its ok as long as Im having fun. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First things first: draft. Second things second: good draft. :p

      If you aren’t worried about what you’re putting out, then, honestly, don’t worry about it! All the advice about first drafts is mostly about overcoming the mind games we play with ourselves. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It *will* be broke down the line, if only because your own knowledge and awareness will grow and your skill will once again have to catch up. But until that point, just keep writing and having fun!

  26. I discovered your site midway through slopping my first draft—which I had not planned so much as haphazardly tossed together a chapter list and called it an outline. After reading about your outlining process, character arcs, structure, and all the other golden nuggets of knowledge, I realized I needed a MAJOR overhaul. I don’t even want to remember my first draft, but it was a valuable experience to go through because now I know there is a MUCH better way.

    Next time I’ll definitely be spending more time planning up front, because I, too, long to be part of the “First Drafts Don’t Completely Suck” Club!

    Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge and insights. They have literally changed my writing for the better and forever.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s the most awesome thing in the world when a writer can look back at previous drafts and realize they’re not as good as they should be. It means we’ve grown that much in the meantime. 🙂

      Great to hear you’re enjoying the site!

  27. Bob Adauto says:

    Interesting that I read this article as I’m tromping through my first chapter. For one, I’m happy knowing I get to rearrange what I’m writing and subsequently I’m not dissuaded from completing my story.
    The contrary is true. I’m eager to finish this, because after that I’ll let it sit for bit and dive back into the first draft to weed out the unnecessary and strengthen what remains.
    Thanks for the boost and encouragement!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No story is ever finished until it’s published… and even then! 🙂 We’re blessed with endless opportunities to perfect our work.

  28. Awesome article, Katie! I found that after scouring your site and books for info on story structure, my outlines and drafts are coming out cleaner and more quickly than before. I still haven’t found just the right process for outlining, just because all of my projects are so different from one another and have different needs.

    But I agree that first drafts don’t have to be lousy. And your comment on how your outline *is* your first draft in a way really hit home. That’s kind of how it is for me, too, though my outlines don’t tend to be as in-depth as yours.

    Thanks for the tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Every book is its own adventure. Even as I’m refining my process from book to book, it’s also unique to each book.

  29. directornoah says:

    Another excellent post! This is very true of my experience in writing, and reflects where I’m currently am at the moment.
    I was 16 when I wrote the first draft of my trunk novel. I pantsed through it, but not because I didn’t want to outline. It was that I never thought I’d actually finish a complete draft of a story, since I’d discarded my previous stories halfway through writing them, due to running out of enthusiasm.
    While doing the first drafts, I tend to ignore its faults as I write, as this gives me less time to be forever editing, and therefore never finish it through, and remain more focused on the main goal of getting to the end.
    I worked for three hard years revising this first draft, and went through the pits of despair, exhausting myself with endless editing and slogging on, without really getting anywhere and seeing it transform into something decent. There were many times I thought about giving up and believing I was a rubbish writer.
    To be honest, I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing back then, I knew nothing about the triangle of plot, character arc and theme, and the plot and characters became so messy, that I recently decided to shelve it and work on my current WIP. I’m also a highly critical perfectionist, which didn’t help.
    Looking back, I can now see what was wrong with it, and how bad it still is, even after years of editing. It requires too much of a major overhaul, but I might return to it again in the future. Still, I know it was a valuable learning experience in my writing journey.
    After discovering the proper ways of writing from your brilliant blog, I have intensely planned and outlined my current novel in detail, and although I haven’t begun the first draft of it yet, I am already very confident it will turn out much better, and from the few scenes I’ve jotted down, I can tell my writing is far more polished than before.
    Your insightful posts are so informative, they’ve advanced and improved my writing for good, and your blog is really helping me become a better writer! Many thanks. ?

  30. Sarah J. says:

    I’m looking forward to growing in this. Currently writing my first novel (i have played with stories for years, but this is the first organized attempt at finishing one as a book). I have found great comfort in the comments of many about a first draft can be as rough as it needs to be. I know that ‘practice makes progress’ so i’m hopeful that future books will come together easier, like you describe here.

  31. My biggest problem has always been in finishing a manuscript. In fact, up to this point, though I have dozens and dozens of snippets, chapters,etc of over 20 stories in various stages on my computer, I have completed only one single manuscript. NaNoWriMo helped me with that, but because I completely pantsed it, I’ve hit a stumbling block with revisions and rewrites.

    Even before that, I had a habit of world building and often would worldbuild to a pretty large extent and I suppose in some ways, it was a bit of an outline in and of itself. I’d be writing the story and then get to a part that maybe I hadn’t thought of yet, or hadn’t fleshed out, so then I’d do that. The problem was, I would then forget where the story was going. So I’d go back and reread to get a sense of where I’d been going. And it would be awful. I’d hate it all. So then the idea just sits on my computer (the amount of those I have at the moment makes me cringe).

    I think the biggest problem I’ve had is in not having a solid writing process/routine that helped me to keep on track. So though I have been writing for decades, I’m a bit late on getting those rubbishy first drafts out of the way. My current WIP is one that I outlined using your method, Katie. And so far, I’m trucking right along in the first draft. I know there is going to need to be a few rewrites (still refining some of my outlining as well XD), but I think, for the most part, the skeleton is there and I think the editing/revision won’t be as painful. That’s the hope anyway.

    So, thank you, Katie. Thank you for your advice. For the first time in years, I feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve always wanted to take writing (which was always more than a hobby for me) and turn it into something that I can get published. You’ve given me many of the tools that I believe will get me to that point!

  32. Krysten says:

    While it is comforting in a way to know that “all first drafts are crap,” I’ve also secretly felt like it’s something of a cop out. It’s an excuse for not making a whole-hearted effort. Because, after all, if it’s impossible to write a good first draft, then it’s not your fault when yours is craptastic. There’s nothing you could have done differently to make it *not* craptastic. But that’s completely false.

    As a perfectionist, I just can’t allow my first draft—or anything I do—to be crap. It’s not in my DNA. And so, when I hear a fellow author advise a novice writer not to worry because “all first drafts are crap,” I cringe. Not only do I feel like an arrogant jerk when I think, “Well, my first drafts aren’t total crap,” but I also think that’s bad advice: Yes, it’s supposed to take the pressure off and help the creativity flow, but it’s also allowing writers to half-ass it. And what they fail to mention is that it’s going to be so much more difficult and time consuming when they get to the editing and revision phase if they don’t put the effort in up front. Can you build a solid relationship on a shaky foundation? Nope. Same is true of novels.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to say is: Thanks for this post. It reassured me that I’m not an arrogant jerk. There are others out there who try to make their first drafts better than crap!

  33. I’m not sure how many more sections in your blog I have to cover, but can see the story gelling, and I feel nearly ready to “gleefully” get on with it. I’m hoping to preserve some of my previous scenes. If not, I’m creating a file called “deleted scenes.” 😉 I’m reverse engineering right now, but still haven’t decided how exactly it’s going to end, especially for one character. I know you have a section on writing the end. Now, where is it?

  34. I comPLETEly agree with this, Katie! In writing novels, especially, one needs to plan and figure these things out if we want to end up with quality work more quickly in the end. That’s why I want/buy your books. I want tools to help speed up AND ease the process BEFORE I waste precious time! 😀 Thank you!

  35. Really like this… I’ve had first drafts on my mind a lot lately.

Trackbacks

  1. […] you’ve got your idea, you dive into your process. K.M. Weiland has 5 ways to write a perfect first draft (or nearly), while Bryan Collins lists 7 common writing mistakes that will stop you finishing your […]

  2. […] that “duh, I don’t have to expect my first draft will always be horrible (hopefully)” from K.M. Weiland. Sometimes I need to hear things five times before it sticks with me. And for those reasons, I […]

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