The First Draft and The First Reader.

Congratulations! You’ve just had a fantastic idea, you’re inspired, and now you’re sitting down typing away at your first draft. Problem is you’re going to get stuck, somewhere and somehow, especially if this your first ever first draft.

This post is here to help. This is going outline tips, tricks, and guidelines for writing and completing, your first draft. These are not hard and fast rules, as with everything, and biased to my own personal styles and preferences, but all the same there may be useful help here.

The number one goal, key, whatever you want to call it, for first drafts is to COMPLETE YOUR FIRST DRAFT.

There are millions of people who come up with great ideas and never complete their first drafts (for whatever reasons). If you complete your first draft, no matter the content or length, you are already leaps and bounds ahead of the game. That’s why, above all else, completing the draft should always be your goal.

I don’t like to thinking of “writing” as just writing words. I think of it more as “wright”, as in “playwright.” A story is not just written. It’s crafted, sculpted, and built. It needs to be wrought. That’s part of the first draft’s role, to hammer and beat this thing. To really work it like a metalsmith.

I once heard (and I hear it repeated over and over) that the first draft is the writer telling themselves the story.

When you’re first hit with this fresh seed of an idea, it’s not developed yet. That’s why you need to tell yourself the story in the first draft.

On a more philosophical level, let me tell you a story. A friend of mine was at a music competition once at a Q&A session with a well known musician. Someone in the crowd asked: Is music made for the creator or for the listener? 

From what I’m told, the musician thought for a moment and said: “Music is always for the listener, but the creator is the first listener. 

I took that to heart and began to think of it in all sorts of way, applying it to all forms of art. In writing you can think of it like this: Stories is always for the reader, but the writer is the first reader.

You are both the creator and the first reader to your work. You are simultaneously creating and discovering your story. This is the power of the first draft; it is your place to tell yourself the story in complete privacy and complete freedom.

With that in mind, here’s some nitty gritty stuff:

  1. Outline your story. Now, some people hate outlining, it just doesn’t work for them. That’s okay and valid. But I will be straight forward here in that I never go into a work without an outline. It keeps me on track and from straying off into random places I don’t need to go. Your outline does not have to be set in stone. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that your story will change as you go. The outline serves you as a navigation. You can change course as you need to, but no matter what changes, your outline will keep you on track. Some people use really fancy methods (which I’ll link to at the end), but I tend to stick with a good ol’ word document.
  2. Start with the scenes that are most vivid. The scenes that are most vivid, clear, and compelling to you will be your best ones in the first draft. Some writers like to write in order (beginning, middle, end), but I like to write the scenes out that strike me most and then connect them later in ways that are compelling and make sense.
  3. Save backstory and world building for later. In fantasy, a lot of the action usually hinges on world building (new worlds, magic, unfamiliar cultures, made up history, etc.) but the real heart of storytelling is (obviously) the story. When you’re first sitting down to write this thing, focus on the story, jot notes on lore and world building  as you need elsewhere and then, once the draft is done, put any missing pieces in where they make sense and are relevant, if they are. It’s important that you have a good handle on this world, which is why notes are important, but the reader probably doesn’t need all that information.
  4. Or put all the world building in and cut it out later.  This is the opposite of point 3, and depending on who you are and your work, it might serve you better. Write out all the world building and backstory, etc. and then when the first draft is done, cut out all the parts of it that aren’t relevant (I’ll make a post about this soon). I generally do a mixture of both this and point 3. It just depends on what works for you and your story.
  5. Keep your inspiration at the back of your mind. Whatever it was: poetry, music, a picture, a phrase, an experience, etc. Keep that in your mind always. Come back to it. This is, at least for me, what keeps me coming back to the draft. It helps me remember why I wanted to tell this story in the first place.
  6. READ. Read while you write (not literally at the same time). Analyze those works, apply it to your own. It will inspire you, help you structure, help you further your work.

Now this next thing is going to get its own section because it’s one of the most common problems when writing first drafts: Do not get caught in an endless cycle of writing, editing, and rewriting.

This is death to your first draft. So many first drafts are edited and rewritten to death and the damn thing never gets finished. I’ve fallen into that trap as have many, many others. Almost everyone encounters this at some point.

Here’s what often happens: The initial euphoria of the inspiration has worn off (See Point 5 above). You’re now getting to the really hard parts and you start second guessing, getting different ideas, doubting the story’s merit. So you go back to the beginning to try and solve those problems. Or you get frustrated and start from scratch. You do this 3 times, you do it 50 times. Next thing you know, your draft is never finished and is abandoned altogether.

Now, I’m not against re-reading your draft as you go for simple errors or to find a logical pathway for the story to go. But do not, for the love of all that is holy, get stuck in the cycle. Keep pushing forward. You can change it later, you can rewrite later, you can rework it later. As I said before, completing the draft should always be your number one goal. Don’t think of your first draft as your final one. It’s a lot easier to work with something that has its structure and bones than it is to start from nothing.

“But my first draft/story isn’t working. Should I abandon it?”

My short answer to this: No.

As I’ve repeated, so many first drafts never get completed. Make it a goal to complete all your drafts. You will feel more confident and more satisfied. Don’t quit the marathon in the middle of it: Try to finish. Keep pushing forward.

You will not get better if you keep scrapping drafts. With every sentence written and every draft completed, you will improve. That’s a promise. Do you want to write better? Finish your drafts. All the inspiration and ideas in the world are useless if they come to nothing.

That being said, if it is really driving you bonkers, figure out what the problem is. Is it because you hate the idea? Or are you just frustrated because it’s hard? Is it continuity? Is it because the idea actually is crap? Or is it just not developed?

Ideas are pretty hard to judge. Almost every idea could be brilliant or garbage. It’s execution that counts. Harry Potter could have turned out to be a really crap story if the idea  was not executed well. At the same time, an idea about a sentient keychain could be completely brilliant. It’s impossible to tell from an idea. That’s why first drafts and ideas are really hard to judge.

So before you scrap your first draft, really think about why you feel that way. Try to fix it.

“But how do I know when the draft is done?”

This depends solely on you. Has your story come to an end? Don’t worry about merit or anything, just ask yourself if it is complete. If not, keep going.

If yes, then put it down. Let it sit for a little bit. Then go back and edit. Find errors in continuity, grammar errors, cut things that aren’t useful or don’t make sense. Trim the hedges, so to speak.

Once you’ve got that done, don’t keep self-editing. It won’t help you and it will keep your work from coming to life. Send it to others, submit it for critique, send it to beta readers who are going to give you honest feedback (Here’s my post on critique).

Keep in mind that your first draft probably sucks.

This is not unique to you. My first drafts always suck. Any author’s, no matter how good or famous, first drafts suck. The point of a first draft isn’t to make a final, polished, brilliant product. It’s to get the story onto paper as well as you can and then craft into something that is great later. Don’t let this discourage you, keep it in mind and allow it take the pressure off. Do not feel the need to be brilliant on your first draft, because that’s not what they’re for.

So don’t worry about the quality, that’s what later steps are for.

So keep all this in mind.

You’re going to run into hurdles and obstacles. That’s just how it goes. Remember that the more you push forward, the braver you are, and the closer you get to completion the better that you will get.

Here are some resources for outlining and structuring, and some on the nature of first drafts. Be sure to check the Resources page as well.

First Draft Struggles

How Terrible is a First Draft Supposed to Be? Writing Reddit Thread

Outlining Methods: Writer’s Digest

Master Outlining and Tracking Tool for Novels

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