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4 reasons why you’re writing the first draft

There’s a lot of agony over writing the first draft, and even more over reading it. But what is the real purpose of the first draft of your story and what does it need to accomplish? What are the best tips for writing a good first draft?

You may have heard that the first draft is always crap. You may have also heard someone else say that we shouldn’t be saying things like that because you should always be proud of what you’ve written. But who is more correct? And can you write a good first draft?

Read these facts and tips for writing the first draft of a novel before you start writing your next bestseller.

What is a first draft, anyway?

Before we delve into what the first draft needs to do, we should discuss what it actually is.

The first draft of your story is the first round of you writing it from start to finish. Although some people like to write a very extensive outline, there is still a difference between “planning a story” and “writing a story”. The following drafts might be complete re-writes on a clean document or they could be editing and adding to the existing document.

It’s up to you how you prefer to write your first drafts. I’ve found that my best method is writing by hand, and then using yWriter to type the draft into the computer. Despite meticulous planning, I’ve always been an under-writer, which means that my first drafts tend to be pretty thin. Others might be over-writers, meaning that they will need to cut out a lot from their meandering first drafts.

What is the difference between first draft and second draft?

Your first draft is the first time you write your story from start to finish. It becomes the second draft once you start making changes to it after first writing it.

The difference between different drafts can be difficult to point out but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Who cares where your third draft ends and fourth one begins?

What's the difference between a first draft and a finished book

The difference between the first draft and the book

A total novice writer might think that if they were a good enough writer, they could knock out an excellent first draft and have that turned into a book straight away. I’m sorry, but no, it simply doesn’t work like that.

None of the books you’ve ever read have been first drafts. (Except maybe that self-published book your uncle keeps sharing at family functions, and don’t get me started on Fifty Shades of Grey.) All your favourite books have gone through multiple rounds of edits and multiple people have worked on them. Ideally, there are several months between your first draft and the finished work. Maybe even years.

Why is my first draft so bad? Can a terrible first draft be avoided?

Are first drafts always bad? Well, it depends on your definition. Kind of.

Can you write a good first draft?

If you don’t have a lot of experience in writing and you’re not familiar with the writing process, reading your first draft might be a harrowing experience. You’ve read other people’s work, why can’t you write the same way? Should you just give up writing and go back to studying accounting?? Stop right there! If you can recognise that your first draft is “crap”, you’re on the right track.

Although your first draft will contain mountains of useful material and likely a few gems, it will only become great during editing. That’s how books are made. Your first draft sucks for the same reason that eating a spoonful of flour and sugar is not as fun as eating a slice of cake. It’s because it’s nowhere near being the finished product, and it doesn’t need to be. Fortunately, being able to recognise sloppy writing is the first step to making it awesome.

I don’t care if my first draft is so bad it makes doves cry and angels stop flying. You shouldn’t care either. if you’ve actually written something, you’re WAY ahead of all the people who only think about writing. Just keep practising your writing skills and all of your drafts will gradually improve.

Should you edit your first draft as you write?

Listen, I’m not here to judge anyone’s method. I know some authors who edit their work as they go so that their first draft is more like their second draft, but personally I don’t recommend it. Especially if you don’t have a really solid outline, you’re just wasting time. That might sound harsh, but until you’ve written the story, you won’t completely know how it goes. You won’t want to spend time polishing a piece of writing that you’re going to cut out anyway.

The second reason you shouldn’t edit as you write is that you will lose momentum. Whenever you turn back to look at a sentence that you’ve just written and thinking “hmm, that could be better” instead of just writing the next sentence, you stop the story from happening. You also invite your critical mind to the game, which is NOT something you should do when you’re just creating your story. Save that for the numerous rounds of edits that are still ahead of you.

The best way to finish your first draft is to write it and to keep writing. You’ll never get to the part where it gets really good if you don’t just keep writing. Let me say it again: KEEP WRITING.

The four reasons you’re writing the first draft

The 4 reasons why you're writing the first draft

So here are the reasons why you’re writing that cursed first draft to begin with. This is its very purpose.

1/ You need to find out how the story goes

Even if you prefer to outline your story scene by scene like I do, writing the first draft is still an act of discovery. It’s always a creative act, not mathematics. That is why it’s so important that you just get the story out, because until you do, you don’t actually know it.

2/ The first draft is you TELLING yourself the story, not SHOWING your readers

There’s a lot of nuance and subtext in great books, but they didn’t come out of nowhere. Plot twists as well don’t just happen, they need careful planning to make them believable and still surprising, and the first draft is a great place to lay the groundwork. It is not unusual at all to write something like [place subtle evidence of Clara’s betrayal here] in the first draft when you’re not yet sure how to do it.

Putting feelings on paper is not an easy task either. Instead of spelling them out, you should trust your reader enough to show the feelings to them instead of telling. However, when you’re writing the first draft, it’s more than fine to simply tell yourself what is going on. “Clara was angry, and it was obvious that Meredith didn’t like it” might not be great writing, but it’s exactly the kind of stuff that belongs in the first draft. It can become “Meredith left the room as soon as she saw Clara clenching her jaw” later on.

Although “show, don’t tell” is an important writing tip, you don’t need to think about it too much when writing your first draft. Sometimes you write breathtaking descriptions on the first try… and sometimes not.

3/ You can’t edit an empty page

Since the magic of great writing is in the editing, what do you need before you can edit your writing? YOU NEED SOMETHING WRITTEN. It does sound very obvious, but for the sake of our novice writers, it bears repeating. You do need to get the “bad”, unpolished writing on the page before you can make it good.

Learn how to write great stories at Protagonist Crafts

4/ You need to see the story in front of you before you can fix it

As much as we like to think about our stories in the shower, there’s only so much we can do inside our heads. Even if youve spent a lot of time outlining your story, there are still so many things you might want to change once you’ve written your first draft. Maybe you want to switch scenes around or maybe there’s a gnarly plot hole.

And of course, not all of the work is fixing things that don’t work. There’s also hidden potential in every story that you might not have seen until it’s in front of you, and that’s one of the most magical parts of being a writer. You might find connections and meaning that you didn’t even realise was there.

This is NOT the purpose of your first draft

You might want to re-read the previous section to check, but nowhere did it say that your first draft needs to be good. Being “good writing” is simply not included in the function of the first draft, and you might even say it goes against the purpose of writing it.

I do believe that we all need to strive to write great books. That is, if we’re planning to share our stories with the public. But if you’re such a perfectionist that you can’t stand the thought of writing a “bad” first draft, you’re getting the writing process all messed up. Not just that, but you’re also stunting your own progress if you’re getting hung up on the quality of your first draft.

Should you show your first draft to anyone?

It is likely that if you have family and friends who don’t write, they’ll be asking to read what you’ve written pretty much as soon as you’ve got it on paper. But in my opinion, this is not the time.

I’ve understood that some people like to have so called “alpha readers”, who read their writing very early on. (As opposed to beta readers who will be reading it in later phases.) If you’re working with a publisher, you might have a developmental editor reading your first draft to come up with suggestions for big-picture improvements. In any other cases, I’d suggest you keep your writing to yourself until you’ve worked on it a bit more.

How many words should a first draft be?

How long should your novel's first draft be?

I personally don’t think about word count a lot when I’m writing my first draft. When I outline my stories, I make sure the story is balanced and that no part of it feels rushed, and then I just follow my outline when I write.

Longer stories often have more stuff happening in them, sometimes over a longer period of time, so prepare for that when you write your novel outline. That way you won’t have to stretch your scenes thin trying to meet your word count. If you want to write a shorter book, don’t try to cram too much into it.

It really doesn’t matter whether your first draft meets your word count goal or not. Any changes you need to make, you can do it when editing your story.

The question of how many pages a first draft should be is even more difficult to answer since your number of pages changes depending on your font etc. If you’d like a general idea of how many pages your manuscript would be as a finished novel, just take a book in your genre and count how many words there is on one full page. Then divide your word count by that number and you’ll get a very rough idea how many pages your book might be.

How long should it take to write a first draft?

How long should it take to write your first draft?

How long does it take to write a first draft depends on many things. How well did you plan your story in advance? How clear of an idea did you have about your story before writing? How often can you write? How fast do you type?

In general, writing your first draft takes a lot less than editing it does. But how long it actually takes depends on the individual and on the project – some first drafts are easier to write than others.

I’m currently witnessing one of my Instagram friends write a massive first draft in less than three weeks, and while that’s impressive, it’s not something that you should strive for. If it’s going to happen to you, it’s going to happen to you – writing is not a speed race. One time it took me 10 months to write a first draft and then the next one took only 3.

If you take part in NaNoWriMo, you might write a nearly complete first draft in just 30 days, though your story will likely need some fattening up later on since most adult novels (that are written in English) are at least sixty-thousand words as opposed to the fifty-thousand you need to write during Nano.

What happens after you’ve finished writing the first draft?

So now you’ve written your first draft, then what? As I mentioned earlier, my process is a little different from many others, because I like to write the first draft by hand. When I type it up into digital form, I make notes of things that make me go yikes and any sections that need filling out.

It’s often a good idea to take a short break after you’ve written your first draft. You do need fresh eyes to be able to see all those gigantic plot holes and inconsistencies in your story. Such fun!

But in all seriousness, it’s usually beneficial to take some distance, and then read your work while making notes for improvements. Some parts might need filling out and some others might need to be cut out completely. You will need to keep an eye on character development and the story arc and see what needs to be done to make it all into a cohesive story.

But hey, that’s a subject for another blog post, and fortunately I’ve already written about how to edit your novel.

How can you start writing a novel the right way?

Let’s be honest, there’s no ONE right way to start writing a novel. But if you want a solid foundation for writing your novel, there are a few things you shouldn’t miss. I created my free Start Your Novel course to give you an easy way to begin writing your story without wasting time looking for answers on Google and Pinterest – join us today and begin writing your book next week!

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