Writing Your First Draft

Writing your first draft can seem a daunting prospect. When you’re faced with a blank screen, and knowing that you have to write 100,000-or-so words, it can be scary. This page aims to help you with that.

I’m glad to tell you that writing your first draft successfully is, in many ways, just a matter of attitude and thought process. Sure, you need the technical skills (as shared on the rest of this website). But you need the right mindset too.

The most important thing to remember is this:

You cannot get it wrong!

I’m serious. Nothing you do is irretrievable.

Let me digress a little and tell you that I do a little bit of watercolour painting. Now, that’s scary. If I make a mistake in that, it’s very hard to correct it. It’s not like oils where you can either scrape the mistake off, or cover it up. You’re stuck with it. And especially if I make a mistake towards the end of the painting – then I’ve ruined the whole painting. The pressure can be immense.

And that mistake costs money. The cost of the watercolour paper, and whatever paint I’ve used – wasted once I ruin the painting.

And yet, even then I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter. Even if I do screw up, so what? I’m learning all the time. I should be enjoying the process and it doesn’t matter if the end result doesn’t turn out exactly as I wanted. Even the cost of the ‘wasted’ paper and paint is minimal.

But with writing – there aren’t even such minimal risks.

There is no cost implication if you’re working on a computer; fractions of pennies if you’re physically writing and using paper.

Any mistakes can be corrected with absolutely no cost, financial or otherwise.

I repeat:

You cannot get it wrong!

Think of it like this: you’re creating a sculpture out of clay. When you start off you mould the clay in the rough shape you want. But you’ll fine-tune afterwards – you don’t try to do that at the first draft stage. If you have gaps, or excess – it’s okay, you’ll just correct that.

Of course, if you’re sculpting a human, you want the clay to form a roughly human shape, not that of a dog or a horse. So you’ll aim in the general direction of the finished product. You’ll always know, however, that even if for some mad reason you wanted a human shape and somehow made a dog shape – you’d just squish up the clay and start again.

So it is when writing your first draft. Depending on how tightly or loosely you plot your novel, you’ll be more or less aware of where the story is going. Aim for that for sure – but be prepared to take interesting detours.

Often, if you’re in the freeflow of writing, characters will say and do things you never expected. That is so much fun! Those occasions usually improve your story. And if they don’t, just cut them out.

When writing your first draft, be aware that it’s about story structure and creating characters and plot. It’s not about fine writing or wonderful metaphors. If they come in the first draft – terrific! But they’re not the point of writing your first draft.

So, use adverbs and clichés freely. They act as wonderful placeholders. When you go over the story in subsequent drafts, that’s when you can try to phrase things more elegantly and creatively and flowingly.

The first draft, you could say, is about what you want to say and the subsequent drafts is how you want to say it.

When you’re writing your first draft, you must switch off your internal editor. You know the one, the little squeaky voice which is forever criticising; the one which says, That’s useless. That’s rubbish. Ha! Call that writing – a child would do better. Nobody’s ever going to publish that rubbish. 

Don’t listen to it!

There are three ways to deal with this.

This first is using EFT. As I explain in the page on what exactly is writer’s block?, writers are taking great risks – facing both real and imaginary dangers.

This little voice is actually our friend, believe it or not. It’s doing all it can to help to protect us from these dangers. At its ultimate, it causes writer’s block – after all, if it can stop us writing, then it’ll stop us suffering the dangers inherent in writing (as I say, both real and imaginary). I have written a whole book about how to deal with this, called Unleash The Writer.

The second way to silence the internal editor as you’re writing your first draft is freewriting, which is effectively about writing too quickly for the internal editor to get a word in!  

And when you’re writing, keep those fingers moving on the keyboard (or the pen moving if you’re writing in longhand). Don’t pause or stop if you can help it.

If a thought occurs to you, rather than going back to fix it then, make a note to yourself.

I use square brackets for these notes because I wouldn’t use them as part of the text of the novel, and therefore they’re easy to identify using the Search Option afterwards. I leave myself notes like:

  • [Flag this] This is if I introduce something that’s important, and I know it has to be mentioned earlier in the novel. This is to make sure I keep to the terms of the sacred contract by foreshadowing
  • Another example might be [rephrase this]. I use this when what I’ve just written is whatI want to say, but is most definitely not how I want to say it. It’s probably clunky and clumsy and just not right. I’m sure I’d pick up on it when I read over it again, but just to be sure  I leave that note for myself. It means I don’t have to fret over it and my mind is free to move forward with the story.
  • In short, every time I think of something, I leave a note for myself to do it later. This means that I can keep the forward momentum without getting distracted and side-tracked and also without fretting that I’ll forget some wonderful inspiration.

The third way of quietening that little voice is to be kind and gentle, but firm, with it – just as you would with a puppy you were training. Say to this voice something like:

I know you’re trying to help me, and I appreciate this. But this isn’t the time for judging the work – that’ll come later. When it comes to the editing stage then I’ll need your help and would appreciate it. But for now please just let me do this. 

You may have to say this many times before the voice gets the message (just as you do with a puppy). But eventually it’ll get the message – especially if you’ve used EFT to disarm the real dangers inherent in writing your first draft, and let go the beliefs about the imaginary ones.


Fiction Writers’ Mentor