How to Write Your First Draft

So as you may have already seen, I finished writing the first draft of my Work in Progress (WIP) / novel last week, which was super exciting! But quite a few people have asked me questions to do with how a first draft works, how long it took me to write mine, and just if I had any tips or advice for people who were about to start working on a novel for the first time. Before I begin, let me say that I am in no way qualified to be giving writing advice and if anything, you should probably go and ask a reputable author. I’ve only written a first draft one other time — three years ago — and that book is never seeing the light of day. Before you ask, no, you’re never seeing it. Not even a snippet. I have buried it somewhere no one will ever find it.

Well, if you’re still with me, that must mean you’re reading to hear some dubious writing advice for how to ruin — I mean ace — your first draft! First, let me give you some background about how writing this first draft went for me.

• • •

I began working on my first draft last November after coming up with a vague idea about what I wanted to write about in September and have it consume me for those couple of months. Before I ever touched my fingers to the keyboard on a blank document, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. It was like it was begging to be written. But the hard thing was — I was at the end of Year 12, my final year of high school, and exams were looming. I know that thinking about writing a novel should have been the last thing on my mind.

So I tried to push all thoughts of my WIP aside. I attempted to concentrate on studying, but before long, I realised my mind was wandering to the backstories of my characters or planning ahead for how the novel might play out. At one stage, I had to uninstall Pages from my computer because I was way too tempted to just open it up and start writing. But I knew if I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop until I’d completed it.

But then came along November, and I still hadn’t written a single word. I was proud of myself for concentrating on my exams, but I still had four of them left. This wasn’t the time to be daydreaming about writing. However… November is National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and everyone I knew on Twitter was beginning their projects. If you’re unfamiliar with NaNo, it’s where writers from all over the world aim to write 50,000 words in the month, and if they succeed, they ‘win’ NaNo. Seeing practically everyone I followed talking about writing and NaNo was driving me insane. There was nothing I wanted more than to be able to participate as well.

For the first day of November, I was strong and resisted the temptation to open up my laptop and write. I studied. I’ll admit, I wasn’t very productive because I was trying to live vicariously through everyone else participating in NaNo, but I studied nonetheless.

It was the second of November when I cracked. I was sitting at my desk, scrolling through Twitter in an attempt to escape my Chinese revision for my exam in the next week or so, when I decided enough was enough. I couldn’t last another minute without writing. My ideas were consuming me. Devouring me.

I opened up my laptop and wrote for five hours.

I only stopped when I realised I’d missed my practice Chinese oral exam.

Then I figured I should probably either get back to studying, or devise a NaNo plan that would allow me to still write a little, but also concentrate on my exams. So I decided that I would aim to write 30,000 in the month of November, and I was so excited by that prospect.

But if you know me at all, I’m competitive. I’m ambitious. I am equal parts Slytherin as I am Ravenclaw. And I didn’t want to be tied down by some measly word count when I could reach for the stars. Or by that, I mean 50K. But heck, why even stop there? Why not write 60K? Or finish my novel in the month of November? I was on a downward spiral, and one that would severely impact upon my exam results.

In the first week of NaNo, I wrote 13K.

In the second, I surpassed 25K.

In the third, I realised that this couldn’t continue and that I really needed to start studying again. But thankfully, by that time, my exams were mostly over. I managed to do my Chinese exam without daydreaming about my WIP, and then finally it was all over! I then proceeded to sleep for about a week because my brain was dead, and then started writing again in December. From then on, it was more slow and steady. Some weeks I wrote hardly anything, but others I wrote over 10K. Writing the last half of my WIP was definitely done in less of a fervent panic than the first half was!

And so last week, I wrote the final word for my first draft, which brought my word count to 79,089. I was so pleased to finally have everything written down, and now I’m really looking forward to the editing stage. I didn’t even bother editing my terrible first WIP, so this’ll be a completely new experience! Thanks to some lovely people on Twitter, I have an idea about what to do, and what not to do.

But now that I’ve shared my ‘first draft story’, it’s time to give you some advice so you can start working on your own novel!

• • •

Plan. Even if it’s just a little bit.

I’m probably one of the worst advocates for planning, but honestly, learn from my mistakes. All I planned for my WIP was about the first 5K, because it always helps get things started when you know how you want it to start, and the last 5K. Everything else I practically made up as I went along. If I thought my characters needed a new friend, bam, there’s one. If it needed some more action, bam, explosion. It was fun being able to let my characters control the narrative a lot of the time, but it did sometimes make it hard to get motivation, or to make it feel like what I was writing had any worth. Next time, I’d definitely try to make a timeline of the narrative before launching into the writing. But even if you can’t do that, just make sure you have an ending. That’s the most important part, and it will make sure you know where you’re headed so you don’t just let your WIP trail off, or worse, you decide to stop writing because you’re out of ideas.

Don’t compare yourself to others. Write what you want, and to whatever schedule suits you.

There’s nothing that stresses me out more than seeing people talk about being able to write a novel in four days. I mean, I feel so happy for these people that are talented and can achieve that, but trying to hold myself to those standards would never end well. I’m the type of person that thrives off competition, but only to a certain extent. So my biggest piece of advice is to just write the way you want to. Don’t try and set unrealistic word-count goals. Don’t feel pressured to write 10K a day because you think that’s what everyone else is doing. My motto for quite a number of days was to just write something. You do you! There’s no ‘correct’ way to be a writer. If you’re writing, you already are one.

Just keep writing.

Leading on from my previous comment, you should always try to make time to write, even if you think you only have a spare five minutes in your daily schedule. If you’re always waiting for inspiration to strike or for the ‘perfect day’ to be able to lock yourself in an idyllic writer’s retreat and not emerge until you have a novel, you’re never going to write anything. That’s one of the things I love about NaNo — it pushes you out of your comfort zone by encouraging you to write every day if you want to reach the goal of 50K. At the start of NaNo, I’d even go so far as writing in the car on a five-minute trip. Those five minutes were better than nothing! And even after NaNo on days that I didn’t feel motivated at all or was tired from work, I just told myself to write something. It could be one sentence for all it mattered. It was the fact that I was writing that counted, and sometimes when I thought I was only going to write a paragraph, I ended up writing a thousand words simply because I couldn’t stop. Sometimes the hardest part is just getting started, so just sit down and write.

First drafts are supposed to be bad.

Now I’m not saying that your first draft will be bad or that it is bad, but that’s just the reality of writing. Our work gets better with editing, and sometimes we’ll change or remove a lot of what we write in that first draft. Don’t get tied up on trying to make the first draft overly poetic or making the dialogue snappy — that can always come later. What matters most is getting your ideas down, and then you can neaten things up or sort out those plot holes later. Sometimes when you’re feeling like nothing is working or your writing is bad — trust me, those moments of self-doubt affect us all — just remind yourself that good writing is rewriting. All your favourite authors have probably drafted and redrafted their novels at least three or four times, and then they would have given it to their editor. A lot of work goes into what you read, and nothing’s perfect on the first try.

Find a writing buddy.

Writing can be an isolating process, and without anyone to share your work with, it can often feel like you’re shouting into the void. Luckily I’m friends with some awesome writers and bloggers, and they’re always more than happy to help me out by reading snippets and even pushing me to write when I’m feeling unmotivated or lazy. Some of my friends have also recently started up a writing group, so it’s great to be able to share bits of my work with them and get instant, face-to-face feedback and comments. If you don’t have any writing friends, there’s always writers online! Try chatting with people on Twitter or starting up a Wattpad account that you post things on. I was a part of a writing group at high school, and I found the feedback provided by my peers to be really helpful, and their advice has shaped my writing immensely. I know sharing your work can seem scary at first, as well as the prospect of possibly negative comments, but it definitely helps. Trust me.

• • •

Well, those are my main pieces of writing advice for how to ace your first draft! This advice is pretty general, so if you want to know more about the specifics of writing, such as how to describe a character or how long your chapters should be, I’ll be writing another post like this one very soon to answer all your questions! If you want to hear my opinion about something or ask me anything, please leave a comment! I’m more than happy to help out in any way that I can. I’m even open to reading snippets of your work for feedback!

Let's Talk

Have you ever participated in NaNoWriMo? Are you currently working on a writing project? Do you have any other pieces of advice, or anything you want answered in my next post? Let’s chat about the joys and toils of writing!


20 thoughts on “How to Write Your First Draft

  1. I have participated in NaNoWriMo when I was a few years younger and when I was really into writing. Since then’ I’ve become quite slack with my writing and although I do enter competitions every now and then, I never really try to finish off my first drafts that I started a year or two ago. Hopefully when I am done with VCE I’ll finally have time to tackle that! But such fantastic tips Sarah! I loved this post!

  2. This is a great post!!! And congrats on finishing your draft. I’m not a huge planner–but generally I’ll know how it begins, a few key points in the middle, and the ending. I might also do some planning on the way while I’m writing the book–but most of the time I just prefer to go with it. 🙂

  3. Great advice! Planning definitely helps SO much. I’ve done NaNo five years in a row now, and I can really get on a roll when I’ve planned out all the scenes in detail. I mean, they’re all trash anyway so I don’t really worry about it for a first draft.

    Good luck with the rewrites/editing! Don’t forget I’d love to read it when you need someone 😉

    PS we all need snippets pls.

  4. There is at least one doc here that’s worth reading to try to understand the first step – structure! (The q.)
    Even if used barely, just to ‘see’ the way to the next scene, it can save a writer tons of time, and some people even use it a few times, or for the initial outline, then go for it from the seat of de pants (because it became quite clear in their minds from the outlay of the 4qs).
    Recommended for editing: plough through with one only element (ie dialogue, or plot, or …). That can save time by removing the side-roads. Focus on one element, write notes for the other little bits that might need work, but don’t work on them until it’s their time. Oh, and ‘may your characters grow into the people they should, may your scenes be strong, and your words so powerful that people weep at the message.’

  5. Congrats on completing your first draft! And this is really sound advice – for me the hardest part about writing is actually sitting down to do it. Once I start typing I’m fine, but just getting my butt in a chair has become a real obstacle! Great post though!

  6. I love the idea of NaNo but I find I can never execute it. I seem to write better when I’m not under pressure to write; especially after working all day. But now that school is done and I’m just working, I’m hoping to get a bit of a schedule down and writing whatever WIP is calling me. Thankfully, NaNo allowed me to get some solid outlines done even if the word counts lacked so I’m good to go.

    Another thing I learned was to just write scenes as they came to me and not necessarily in chronological order. You can always edit them to work later 😉

    Congrats on finishing your first draft!

    • Thank you! I seem to be the opposite – I thrive with a deadline because it pushes me to keep writing and I’m quite lazy without that motivation. But it’s great that you got such a solid outline during NaNo! And that’s true. I know that V.E. Schwab likes to write the end scene early on so that on good days she has something to look forward to, and on bad days she knows she has an ending (at least). Good luck with your writing! 💕

  7. Thank you so much! This really helped me a lot. I’m that kind of person that always tries to make every first draft perfect and most of the time it turns out to be a total disaster. I hope I’ll fix this “obsession” in time. Even if I’m only 15, I know that writing is what I WANT to do with my life. I’m waiting for other pieces of your helpful advice. And sorry for my bad english. Good luck and kisses from Romania!

    • I’m so pleased my post helped you! I can totally relate – but try not to stress too much about getting that first draft perfect! That will come with lots of revisions and editing. I’m so happy that you know writing is something you want to pursue in your life! I’d love to see something of yours published some day – just keep writing! I believe in you 💪🏼 And STOP IT! Your English is perfect! 💜

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