creativity

How (and Why) to Write Your First Draft Fast

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Writing a book can feel like such a daunting task that you may feel paralyzed before you even begin. Once you talk yourself down off the ledge and actually start writing, the grind can feel slow and painful. It might be such a huge lift that you abandon the project when you hit a rough patch or reach the inevitable messy middle. You run out of steam before you get a first full draft. 

This can leave you feeling inadequate and frustrated, as if you’re a failure for not finishing what you started. Then that tiny voice of doubt in your mind becomes a nonstop scream fest. It can become so loud that getting back to writing can feel too difficult. 

Then as if on cue, other ideas for other books start to enter your mind, and they start to look like a much better use of your time. Before you know it, you have files of half-started books and not a single finished manuscript. 

Sound familiar?

We’ve all been there. Truly. Every writer has half-finished work sitting on their laptop and in notebooks to get to “someday”. And that’s frustrating for all of us. 

Maybe you’re like me and truly dislike first drafts. I can’t stand them. I want to get them done as fast as possible so I can get to editing, refining, adding in details, and making that first awful draft (yes, all first drafts by all writers, even the greatest luminaries, are awful) shine brighter and brighter with every turn. 

Now that I’m writing my third book in the Emerson Page series, I’ve finally figured out how to get first drafts done quickly so I can get on with the editing and re-writing I love: I dumped the idea of getting to any specific word count on any day, for any scene, and for the book as a whole. 

What? How can I possibly forget about word count when I’m writing a book? 

Here’s how—the first draft is about one thing and one thing only: getting from the start of my story to the end, and getting to the end as fast as possible. 

Here’s my process for getting a first draft done fast:

First, I’m a cartographer:
Outlines are like roadmaps. They tell me where to go next to reach my final destination. They’re functional, not aesthetically pleasing. I write mine first on index cards—one scene per card—and then move them around to create the order of my story. This is my map for my journey.  

Second, I’m a painter:
Then when I’m happy with the flow on my index cards, I put all of the scenes into Scrivener (the software I use to write my first draft) with some additional details I’ve found in my research. I make notes about who’s in each scene, what the action is, why the scene matters to the story, and what the reader will learn by the end of the chapter that will make them want to turn the page. 

A painter starts by sketching on a blank canvas. That’s what I’m doing as a writer when I create this more detailed outline. 

Third, I’m a mason:
Now I’m ready to write. Once I have the detailed outline sketched out, I start to lay down the foundation of the story, scene by scene, brick by brick. I make tons of notes along the way, highlighted in my manuscript, of more details I eventually want to add. 

But those details aren’t my concern right now. I’m just trying to get the most basic text down so I can get to the end of the first draft. I make a note of the details I want to add and then I keep going. 

My first draft doesn’t look like much to celebrate except it absolutely is. I turned my outline and notes into prose. I got from the beginning of my story to the end. I got some dialogue down. I wrote the action sequences. Now I have something to work with. Huzzah—time to party!

Now I take a break
What? Take a break? Shouldn’t I crank away day after day until my book is a masterpiece? No. 

I write the first draft and put it away until I forget what I wrote. For me, that’s about a month. This way I come back to it with fresh eyes, ready to edit, rewrite, and get to the detail work I love. In that time, I may work on another project. Or I might take a break from writing altogether. 

Now, I’m a sculptor
With that first draft, now I’m ready to add in all those details I love. I’m ready to make that dialogue sing and make it believable. Now is the time for poetry. Now I’m really getting into my craft, and all because I’ve got something functional to work with. The edit and the rewrite (many times over in my case) is where I fix everything and make it better. 

I spend the vast majority of my writing time re-writing, and that’s exactly how I like it. I love to take something from awful to something I’m proud of. I love the detail. I love the refinement. I love incorporating all the research I’ve done, and I do plenty more research in the edit. It’s my happy place. But I can’t do any of that if I don’t have a first draft to work with so my goal is to go from idea to draft a fast as I possibly can. Let it be the stinkiest, ugliest, messiest thing I’ve ever created. I don’t care. It just has to exist. 

No one has ever read a first draft of my work. And no one ever will. The first draft is for me and only me. And there’s a freedom in that. It took me years to really get this and act on it. It’s really only now, with this third Emerson book, that I’m embracing the hideous first draft and reveling in its creation. 

And all those partially finished first drafts I have? Well, after this third Emerson book is done, I’m going to pick up each partially written first draft and get it over the line. They’ll all be the worst thing I’ve ever written, at first, and I couldn’t be happier about it.