How To Write an Excellent First Draft
When it comes to your first draft, how do you define “excellent”? Complete and polished enough to be subjected to a serious edit, or brimming with potential to be coaxed out in the next few rounds? Either way, an excellent first draft begins with more than just inspiration and a good pen. It requires using both your creativity and its stodgy rival, logic.
For many writers, planning might seem like the antithesis of creativity. But no good first draft was ever plucked out of thin air. We’ve all read those attempts, the ones that meander, spend too much time describing the scenery, and lose the reader’s interest instantly. You don’t have to draw up a detailed outline; you don’t even have to know your entire plot. But before you start writing, you should have an idea of the tension the plot will generate, or the desire that will drive your character, or even the setting that will subtly suggest a theme. If your mind is empty, your page will be too, no matter how much you scribble on it.
If you’re not sure how to spur these ideas out of the starting gate, you may want to try a few writing prompts or exercises. Most prompts may appear completely useless, but they’re never a waste of your time. The silliest ones will put you at ease and get your writing flowing, unhampered by your critical mind, and the most mundane ones leave endless room for possibility, often unlocking your story’s signature voice or key ideas. A first draft is about discovery. It is not the place to hedge your bets. You can always cut boring descriptions, irrelevant plotlines, and embarrassingly dramatic scenes out, but an uninspiring skeleton of a story may not give you much opportunity to flesh it out with more compelling material later.
Now, most first drafts are messy. But here’s a little secret: no one has to know that was your first draft. Go ahead and polish it up when you finish—that doesn’t count as the second draft! Or, forget the old piece of advice to “ignore your inner editor” while you work. Sure, there are times when pausing to fix those typos might cost you a flash of inspiration. But most of the time, allowing your inner editor to keep things tidy and flag what isn’t working as you go forces you to think deeply and critically about what you’re writing, often setting your draft on a much more compelling and productive path.
Many writers opt for a compromise between these two approaches and start every writing session by going over what they wrote the day before. This allows you to clean up as you go without sacrificing your spur-of-the-moment ideas, and also helps you sink gradually and painlessly into the writing mode every time, freeing you from those blank-page nerves.