Midweek Writer-Rummage - Tackling the First Draft

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story” ~ Terry Pratchett

Writing the first draft is scary.  But it has to be done; it’s the only way to get the story out of your head and onto the page, on its way to being shared with the world.

Writers are weird – we love making up stories.  But when it comes to writing the first draft – the dreaded first draft – writers would rather do something else.  Anything else other than face the blank page.  Writers have made ‘doing anything else’ an art-form.  It can encompass … anything!  From the ‘urgent’ need to sort through pens and pencils, to suddenly needing an alphabetized inventory of every book they own, to staring out the window, to – and this is desperate – cleaning the bathroom!

I think, and I know this is true for me, what it comes down to is fear – not only fear of the blank page/screen but fear that we’re going to write embarrassing rubbish.  It is possible to get over that.  All you have to do is lower your expectations.  First drafts are not meant to be perfect; they’re simply a means of getting the ideas out of your head and on the page.  It doesn’t matter if you write badly, if your tenses are all over the place or if you keep switching between first and third person.  Remember that it’s only th first draft and all that is required of you is to finish it.

These next points, which I decided on through trial-and-error, are what work for me.  Experiment, as I did, and find the method that works for you.

Before starting the first draft, I always outline.  Not a rough sketch of a beginning, middle and end; I’m talking a chapter-by-chapter outline.  I need to know what events are happening when.

Once I get started, I keep going.  It’s only when I’ve written a complete first draft do I revise and edit.  There are some who revise as they go – they write a few chapters then re-read and edit.  I’ve tried that but it doesn’t work for me; I end up focussing too much on those few chapters and find I cannot move ahead until I feel they are ‘just right’.

Sometimes, I get stuck on the ‘big’ scenes, where something crucial happens.  Instead of using that as an excuse not to write, I jot down a few notes, the bare bones of what is happening, and move on.

I used to have daily writing goals, like a specific word count or writing for a set time, and I’d like to go back to that.  But with ‘life’ how it is at the moment, the only goal I set myself is to write.  Even if I only manage one page, that is all that matters – I write.  Don’t burden yourself with undue pressures.  Yes, you want to finish the first draft, but there’s no sense making yourself ill over it.

A tip that some might find handy – if, like me, you use a notebook to write out your drafts, it might be helpful to only write on one side and leave the other side blank for extra notes or sudden flashes of inspiration.

When you’ve finished the first draft, do not rush to do the second draft.  First, give yourself a little treat for finishing!  Then take a breather, to regain your perspective.  Put the manuscript away for 2 to 4 weeks; do not look at it at all.  When you come to revise and edit, you should be able to look at your work with fresh eyes and, hopefully, as objectively as you can.