Writing a fast first draft is cause for celebration. As my friend and sometime coaching partner, Lynda McDaniel, says, “Editing is where the magic happens.” So for me, the trick is to create a workable, fixable, adjustable first draft as quickly as possible, so I can invite the magic in.

Although no single method to quickly produce manageable first drafts works for everyone, here are five tips that many writers adapt to create a “wash, rinse, repeat” pattern book after book:

  1. EMBRACE THE MESS: Unless you’re a one-perfect-draft-wonder, and I’ve never met one yet, fast first drafts are messy. Once I accepted that idea, I felt the burdens lift. No, my draft wasn’t fit for others to read, and little survived the edits, but I had my basic story on paper. Break out the ice cream or champagne.
  2. CREATE A FIRST DRAFT DEADLINE: This may be difficult for some, especially the first time. But if you accept the first draft as a fast and furious writing process, then determine the deadline based on lopping off several weeks or months of projected writing time. For example, if it usually takes you 6-8 months to write a write and polish a novel, then figure no more than 3-4 months for the fast first draft, depending on length. (Some people push to get a faster draft in 25% of the time.) Use the process the first time to get a feel for how much you produce when you push yourself to write fast. You might be pleasantly surprised.
  3. COME UP WITH A ROADMAP, OUTLINE, LOOSE CHAPTER CONCEPTS, or SCENE IDEAS: This isn’t about being a plotter or a pantser. (Seems most of us occupy the broad middle ground, anyway.) It’s about finding the right time to begin writing. I usually have a roadmap in the form of core scene ideas and lots of notes. Right now, I’m experimenting with the 15-beat-system from Jessica Brody’s work, Save the Cat Writes a Novel. Many writers produce detailed outlines, but still use the draft to discover the heart of their books. The fast draft process is a good teacher, so you’ll soon know what you need.
  4. FOCUS AHEAD: In other words, to the extent you can, don’t backtrack to fix this or that line or paragraph. However, if you can only write on the weekends, for example, then you may need to read through previous paragraphs or pages to ground yourself in the story. The trick is not to edit or read back too far, which will inevitably slow the pace. You don’t want to edit dialogue lines between two characters, one of whom might get the boot during revision.
  5. REVISION NOTES MAGICALLY TURN TO GOLD: If the purpose of a first draft is to create something to revise, then we can start planning revisions along the first draft trip. Many systems work for—if you use Scrivener, for example, you have built-in planning tools. I use WORD’S comment boxes (found with the tracking function tools). Comment boxes are designed for margin notes of any length. I use them to indicate what’s needed, sometimes a simple note like, “Weather here.” Or, “Clothes from fall to summer.” I can call for bigger changes, like switching a POV of a chapter. From that point on I write with the change in place going forward. During revision, I can shift seasonal material or POV from the beginning. My notes can also indicate the need for a new conflict, a backstory detail, or a name for the dog in chapter 2. All that becomes part of the revision plan, but doesn’t slow first draft progress. The only downside is that comment boxes don’t always print well, but I’m unlikely to want a hard copy of my messy first draft. When I get to that point, I’ve revised and the comment boxes are deleted.

So, somehow, when I’m done, I’ve ended up with a messy first draft and the bulk of a revision plan. I’ve got some concrete chores ahead, like changing eye color and weather, but I may also have a new subplot fleshed out in my notes. Or, the magic-maker is telling me I can drop my first chapter and start somewhere else. We all adapt systems and ideas to serve us better, so experiment and let the magic begin.

I wish you all the best on your writing journey!


By: Virginia McCullough