Every part of the writing process has its own challenges, but when it comes to first drafts, finishing is often the biggest challenge. First drafts are the worst your book will ever be and sometimes it can be difficult to push through terrible writing and plot problems to make it to the end. However, I’ve found that with the right approach, you can push through and maybe even have some fun. Or at the very least, you may not completely hate the experience.
Here are six tips to help you push on and finish your first draft as painlessly as possible.
(Side note: This post contains affiliate links, which means if you purchase something using the product links on this page, I may get a small commission. This comes at no extra cost to you and helps keep this site running. Thank you!)
1) Take time to figure out how you draft best
I strongly believe that one of the keys to a happy writing life is figuring out your writing process. One step to cracking that code is uncovering out how you draft.
There tends to be two main approaches to drafting: planning and pantsing (as in, you fly by the seat of your pants). If you’ve only ever done one of these before, I encourage you to try the other. I think sometimes it can be really easy to get stuck in the approach you first learned or first tried. And while yes, that may very well be the approach that works best for you, I think it’s important to try both so you know for sure.
The first time I drafted a book I planned. I did this in part because I’d heard that’s what my favorite author did it and in part because it just seemed like a good idea. It worked for me and finished the draft like that. I also wrote my second book the same way. When I got to grad school, one of my first classes involved drafting a book in a semester. We used NaNoWriMo creator Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! as our guide. Baty challenges writers not to plan their books before coming in. I had never written that way, but I gave it a try. Halfway through the semester I broke down and started planning because not planning was painful for me. But I’m glad I tried it. I learned I am most definitely a planner and knowing that shaped not only my drafting but also my revision and editing process.
So, give both approaches a shot. If you hate it and it’s painful, then, by all means, switch back. But it’s worth at least trying the opposite approach so you can know for sure what’s best for you.
2) Turn off your inner editor
This is another concept preached by No Plot? Not Problem. It can be the hardest to get past, but I found it to be crucial. For me, part of this was also accepting that there would be problems I could not fix and questions I didn’t know the answers to. Once I did, it completely opened up my drafting. If I couldn’t fix these problems or answer these questions, it meant I didn’t have to try. That freed up brainpower to focus on what I did know and gave me a road map for what I’d have to fix in revision. I found I was able to draft much more quickly and I’ve come to genuinely enjoyed the process.
Like I said, I know getting to this place can be hard. If it helps, try thinking of your first draft as an extended brainstorm instead of a “draft”. The point isn’t to write well. It’s to discover the story. You don’t need to answer questions or fix problems. You need to learn what the questions and problems are. The flaws need to exist in their entirety so you can fully understand them. In fact, your story needs you to write a bad first draft so you can learn what your story needs to be a killer polished draft down the line. So if you think about it, trying to write a “good” first draft is actually a disservice to your story. Why would you want to hurt your story like that? 😉
3) Set manageable goals
I think one reason writers end up getting discouraged is that they set their writing goals too high. This usually comes in the form of a high page count, high word count, or planning an unrealistic amount of writing time. If you continually fail to meet your goals, it can be easy to feel like you’re “bad” at this and give up. In actuality, you may have just set bad goals. Instead, take a look at the amount of time you can feasibly dedicate to writing, and consider how much writing you can reasonably accomplish in that time. It’s okay if that number is small and it takes you a long time to finish a draft. The key is to set daily goals you can actually meet and keep show up until you reach “The End”.
If you’d like to know more about this, I did a whole post on How to Set Manageable Writing Goals.
4) Show up on a regular basis and protect your writing time
Consistency is key. Maybe you can’t write every day. Or maybe you can. It’s up to you to decide how much time you can realistically dedicate to writing, but make sure you can put that time in consistently. The person who writes 500 words on a regular basis will finish their draft–regardless of how long it takes. The person who writes 5,000 words from time-t0-time/whenever they can fit it in, most likely will not. Set time aside for your story. Even if it’s only 15 minutes every other day.
Now, once you set that time aside, protect it. People will ask to do things or go places with them. They will ask you for favors. Learning to say “no” is important (Find some tips here.). It might be easy to think of your writing time as “free time,” but it’s not. It’s time for your story, which is something you care about. Don’t undervalue yourself or your story by saying yes to others just because their needs seem more legitimate. If you don’t consider your story legitimate enough to prioritize, who else will? You can’t finish your draft if you don’t give yourself the time to get it done.
5) Only share with understanding and supportive people
I know there are a lot of writer’s out there who don’t share their work with anyone until it is absolutely polished and perfect. Personally, I find sharing as I move through the entire process to be invaluable. But I don’t think that means you should share with just anyone. The quickest way to kill your aspirations is to talk about your project with people who either don’t get it or don’t believe in you. Any idea in the drafting stage is still new and undeveloped. If you share it with the wrong person and they poke holes and point out problems, it can be hard to push on. When an idea is this new, you don’t need to hear what’s wrong with it. You need to hear about its potential. Only discuss your story with those who can see what your story could be.
6) Don’t use being “too busy” as an excuse not to write
If you’re constantly looking for a large stretch of time to sit down and really dig into your draft, you may never make it to the end. Even if you come up with that time, you might also find that it’s easy to either procrastinate or overthink under those circumstances. Instead, write when you’re busy and try to use it to your advantage.
This is another point Baty argues. He says that you will write faster and have an easier time turning off your inner editor if you write when you’re short on time. I have found this to be absolutely true. When I have a busier day, it means my writing time is limited. That also means that I have a very small window to be productive. I don’t have a minute of that window to waste if I have any hope of reaching my goals. Because of that, I don’t have time to overthink or second guess. I just have to GO. Typically, I plan two to three hours a day to write. But when I have to, I can do the same work in an hour and ten minutes. Sometimes even faster.
When it comes to drafting, productivity and output are more important than quality. Working when you’re limited on time forces you to focus on that.
I’ve mentioned No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty a few times in this post. If you’re struggling with drafting, I highly recommend giving this book a read. Thanks to this book, I totally changed how I approached my drafts and it made the process so much more fun.
I hope you’ve found something in here that helps you finish your draft!
Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter. You’ll get a bi-weekly email with the posts just like this one (plus a handful of email exclusives) delivered directly to your inbox!
Now it’s your turn: What tricks have helped you draft? What’s been a drafting struggle? Let me know in the comments! You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.