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How To Write A Fast First Draft


The more I write, the more I value the advice from professional writers: write first, edit later. Some say write drunk, edit sober, but I feel that might lead to other issues. But going back to the point of this article—why does it take so long to come up with the first draft? Speaking from experience I can identify two reasons:b

  • Being obsessive about the perfection of the manuscript
  • Abiding to a myth that writing perfectly from the start gets you through the end faster

The first issue is something I find most people are battling. It’s that compulsion that makes you delete two words just so that you replace the third one behind them with a better word and then resume writing (by retyping those two words as well). It’s that annoying squiggly line that tells you made a typo and you must go back to fix it.

Guess what? You don’t have to!

Most of the words and sentences you write will be edited later. Chances are some of those words you agonize over right now will be changed and some of those typos will be moot. So, why bother? A two step forward, one step back approach to writing is a killer for your imagination and your fingers. It’s like running a marathon, but every few yards you’d stop, sit and clean your sneakers until they are perfectly clean. It kills your rhythm and your momentum.

And when I say it makes your fingers tired, I am not joking. If for every line of text you delete one word and you retype two, you are typing two too many words per line. And your writing time is extremely precious, much too precious to be spent at this stage on fixing your writing.

Your first draft is not good

As for the second part: unless you are a genius (and I sure hope you are) your first draft will not be your best work. I know for a fact that is true for myself. No matter how much I think a first draft is good, after a month of breaking away from it, I inevitably red line that text to death. Why is that?

The answer is this: every manuscript contains a story and the writing represents the way that story is told. So, as a writer, you must figure out the story (with its characters, setting, and plot) and then figure out a way to deliver it that works for that particular story. So, your first goal here is to get the story down. In time, your style and your voice will develop and will define itself unique to you. So, the more you write the less you will have to figure out how to deliver the story; it will come more naturally and your first drafts will become better. But never overestimate your first draft. As soon as you do, you will become a “fix-as-you-go”-er, and that will kill your time and imagination.

If you are an outliner, you might say: But I already know my story. I have a detailed outline. To which I say, fine, but get to the end of it and see if your story still matches up to your outline 100%. From experience I can tell you that it won’t. And also, the fact that your story is already formed in your head is not the problem here. The problem is trying to put it on paper perfectly from the first run.

As a matter of fact, the outliners have a much bigger problem than people who write without an outline. You have the story in bullet points, and now you are looking at a scary blank page. It’s very tempting after you wrote one page to go back and “fix it,” or “make it better,” just to have a reason not to move on to page #2. That’s the death of your manuscript. You’ll be running a marathon through quicksand, holding bags of gravel in your hands.

Stop it! Keep writing. Fix later!

Okay, So What Do I Do?

So, what do you take from all of this? What is the big, elusive secret to writing a fast first draft? There’s really no secret. You know it, but you must accept it: Allow yourself to write badly. Turn off that spell checker. You don’t need it. With today’s tools you can spell check a huge manuscript in a matter of minutes. But that’s to be done later. First, forget that you can even use your backspace. Imagine you are writing on a typewriter. The hassle of going back and fixing something on a typewriter is so big, you’d never do it. Keep going forward and never backward.

Once you get into that state of mind, you need two more things: focusand time. Both are easier said than done, believe me!

Focus means that you should eliminate all your distractions, get yourself in a location that is prone to writing, and shut off the world. Close the door, turn off the TV, radio, or anything distracting (unless you are someone who can only write with music). Most of all, put your phones and IPads far away from you and don’t keep your email open. Close everything that doesn’t have to do with writing your manuscript.

Time is the second aspect and it’s a big one. We all know that time is scarce, besides being money. But time is not completely difficult to manage, with a little effort. In a previous article I describe how you can write by time and accomplish your daily quota, so probably you should read that if you are having trouble managing your writing time.

As an example, in my best weeks, I probably write about 15,000 words. This means that, theoretically, should I be able to keep that pace, I could finish a 90,000 words manuscript in just six weeks. That’s a month and a half to a complete novel! It’s possible!

The truth is, if you want to be a writer, you must put in the effort. Just like your biceps doesn’t grow just because you lift a 20 pound barbell every Wednesday morning, your writing skill will not improve if you do not put in the effort.

So, manage your time, keep focused, write your weekly quota every week, and always keep moving forward!

Re-frame Your Thinking

I know it’s a very hard thing to do, because this asks us to let go of things we’ve been taught all your life. At work, we write emails and memos and they have to be perfect. We agonize over a message for thirty minutes to make sure none of the words are misspelled or (my God!) the wrong words. It’s the reality of the world we live in.

But when it comes to your writing, here is a realization that could help you break through that paradigm: NOBODY gets to see your first draft but you!

Read that out loud a few times. Nobody gets to see it and nobody should, because it is not good. Even if it is good, it should be deemed not good until reviewed. So, all you have to do is relax and give yourself the permission to write badly.

Once you’ve pushed through that first draft, turn away from it. For two weeks, maybe more. Work on other things, other projects, but keep writing. Just don’t think about that draft. Weeks later, open it up and start editing your work. Heavy work lies ahead of you, my friend, but guess what: you at least have a complete manuscript!

Actual Typing

Of course, if we are talking about how to produce a manuscript fast, we must not forget the actual act of typing. Some people type faster and some people type slower. If you think your typing abilities are a hurdle, you should definitely seek out a crash course into fast typing. There are many out there, some of them inexpensive. There are also a lot of online resources that could help you. One of them is TypingWeb, but there are others. Use them, especially if they’re free.

I hope this little article will help someone out there write their first draft fast! Please share your opinions in the comments section about the ways you handle your first drafts.

Good Luck

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Iulian Ionescu

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