How to Write a First Draft: 15 Writing Tips

How to Write a First Draft
How to Write a First Draft

Every stage of the writing process is challenging for different reasons. But in a lot of ways, first drafts are the most challenging.  This is when your story goes from an idea in your head, to becoming an actual book. It’s the first major hurdle to clear if you have a goal of publication. Because of that, it can be the hardest. 

To help you clear this first hurdle, I put together fifteen tips to help you write your first draft:

1) Tune out doubters 

There will always be people who say you “can’t.”  There will always be people who point out how hard your task is or how unlikely the chances of success are. This is especially true if you’re writing your first first draft. Learn to tune the doubters out from the very start. These people are not you. They don’t know what writing and your story means to you. They don’t know what you’re capable of.

However, if it’s difficult for you to tune these people out, then consider keeping your circle very small and only telling people you can trust to be supportive.

2) Don’t try to be “good”

First drafts are by nature, a hot mess. Ideas that seemed good in your head may not work on paper. Additionally, it can be hard to think about the story and write the story in polished, easily understood language all at the same time. Because of this, being a “good” writer should be the least of your concerns when you’re at this stage. The only think you need to worry about is making it to the end with a completed draft. It doesn’t matter if your language is repetitive, choppy, or unclear. Just get to The End.

For more on why your writing doesn’t have to be “good,” check out this post!

3) Do You

It’s not a bad thing to read about how other writers approach first drafts, but ultimately, you have to do what works for you. If you’re someone who does well with a plan, then take the time to brainstorm and/or outline before you start. If you’re someone who does better figuring it out as you go, just dive right in and get working.

Try techniques that appeal to you, but don’t feel like there’s any “right” way to approach a first draft. The right way is the way that gets you a finished novel as quickly and painlessly as possible. Do whatever works for you to make that happen. 

4) Try different techniques if it gets “hard”

If you find yourself truly struggling, it’s very possible that you’re following a technique that just isn’t working for you. I’m a firm believer in the idea that writing can be challenging, but it shouldn’t be “hard.” If showing up to your book to write becomes something you’re dreading, consider trying a different approach. If you’re a planner, try abandoning your plan and either making a new one, or diving into your story without any idea what’s coming next. If you’re someone who always gave yourself plenty of time to write, consider writing on the clock to keep yourself moving. 

I’ve got a whole post that talks about why writing doesn’t have to be hard, so if you want more on this topic, be sure to check it out!

5) Set manageable goals

Set goals that you know you can meet on a regular basis. When you first decide you want to write a book and tackle a first draft, it can be easy to get swept up in your story and in the idea of writing your book. You may look at the calendar and decide if you can write a chapter a day, every day, you’ll have a completed book in about a month. And while that math may work out, reaching that goal on a day-to-day basis may quickly become unsustainable.

If you set a goal you can’t keep up with, you’ll likely find yourself falling behind. And once that happens, you may start to get discouraged and think you can’t do this. But you can! You just have to make sure you create goals that fit into your life–even if your book takes a little longer to complete than you’d like. 

For more on setting manageable writing goals, check out this post

6) Set quantitative goals

Additionally, when it comes time to set goals, focus on setting quantitative goals, not qualitative ones for a first draft. Like we talked about earlier, the main goal of a first draft is simply to finish. Don’t let yourself get caught up in getting a specific scene right or nailing a chapter. Worrying about quality at this stage holds you back. Instead, set a goal you can measure numerically. I’m a fan of word count goals, but if you’d rather do page count or something else, that’s fine too! When you hit your numeric goal, let that be your win for the day, even if what you wrote is terrible. 

7) Commit to your goals and plans 

Now that you have your plans and goals, it’s important to commit to them! If you don’t commit, your book will never be more than an idea in your head. It will always be something you wished you could write. Committing is what will make your goals a reality. For more on how to commit to your writing, check out this post

8) Write when you don’t feel like it

If you’ve committed to your plans, that means showing up when you don’t feel like it. That means turning down fun things so you can get your writing in. It means putting the time in even when you know your story isn’t working and you’re probably going to have to rewrite and revise. Your goal is to get to the end. If you planned to write, show up and do something that gets you closer to that goal, even if you don’t feel like it.

9) But take time off when you need it

I know, I know. I just said to make sure you don’t slack off. But if you genuinely need a break, it’s okay to take one. Burn out is no joke and if you feel like you’re well and truly fried, you’re better off taking a day or two away, even if you planned to be writing. This is the difference between taking a genuine sick day and playing hooky. It’s important to take care of yourself. You will not reach the end if you’re brain is too fried to put a sentence together.

For more on this, check out these tips on taking care of your writing brain, and things you can do when you’re too drained to write.

10) Get a support system, but be selective

It’s a good idea to have people who can encourage and support you throughout this process. They can be other writers, but they don’t have to be. You really want people who love stories, creating, and believe you can do this. However, be selective about who you trust. There’s a reason the first point in this post is about ignoring doubters. Be sure you’re entrusting your dreams and goals with people who will build you up. You don’t have time for negativity.

For more on how to find these people, check out the post on finding the right early readers for you book. You can apply a similar principle here.

11) Leave placeholders for revision

As you draft, you may come across details that you didn’t think to develop or whole scenes that you know need to happen, but just can’t figure out how to execute. Don’t let those things hold you up. The goal of a first draft is to have a complete book–as in, you want to have a beginning, middle, and end. There’s nothing that says every scene and element needs to be in place. If you’re really struggling with a transition scene, it’s okay to write [ADD TRANSITION SCENE HERE!!!] and move on. 

Similarly, don’t let the fact that you forgot to come up with a character’s last name or some other small detail slow you down. You can just write LASTNAME for now and drop the details in later.

12) Don’t rewrite as you draft

You may write some scenes that you know are terrible as you’re writing them. Or you may figure out a key plot point halfway through the book that will mean a handful of scenes you already wrote don’t work anymore. I would advise against going back and rewriting before you finish the draft. There will always be things that needs to be fixed in a first draft. If you stop moving forward to fix every problem that reveals itself, it will take you forever to finish (if you ever finish at all). Instead, keep a notebook or a blank word document open on your computer and make note of the changes you want to make. This way, you’ll be sure you won’t forget the change, but you won’t stop your progress.

13) Celebrate small victories

Writing a book is a long process and, like we’ve covered, first drafts are typically a hot mess. That means you need to find your wins wherever you can. Celebrate every day you show up and meet your goals. Celebrate every week. And celebrate every milestone–making it to 10,000 words is a big deal. Making it to 100 pages is a big deal. Do something to appreciate and reward yourself. Then get back to work and start aiming for the next goal and milestone. This will help keep you going.

14) Remember why you started

If you find yourself struggling to stay motivated, remember why you started this. Remember the excitement you felt that brought you down this path. Remember how it feels when your story is really fun to write. If you felt those things once, you will feel them again. But that will only happen if you keep writing.

Which brings us to the last point:

15) Don’t. Give. Up!

If a completed and/or published book is something you really want, don’t let yourself get discouraged by the time it takes, the quality of your first draft, or the people who say you can’t do this. I promise you, every published author has been in the same place. They persevered. You can too.

I hope these tips help you get your first draft down!

Now it’s your turn: What do you struggle with when you write your first drafts? What helps you power through? Tell me about it in the comments!

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