5 Tips for First Draft Triumph

You have an idea. Brilliant! Ideas are where it all begins. You then contemplate the possibilities that this fricking fantabulous idea could offer you. You might write a bestselling novel, become a blogging sensation, or the world’s most notable expert on thirteenth century episcopal stockings (It’s a thing). Then, after all this daydreaming, you painstakingly give up every familiar aspect of life as you know it to bash out the first draft of your beloved idea.

How many times did the above paragraph take to get right?

First go? A few quick shuffles and two attempts? Actual answer: four (ish). This brings us speedily onto the five-point plan for writing a first draft (and surviving with bells on):

1. In the Beginning…

We all have our own ways of doing things, and the writing process is no different. While grammar, spelling, tone and imagery can all sometimes be open to interpretation, the actual step-by-step bit is completely up to you. There’s tons of advice out there on the how, where and when, but eventually it’s just you and your writing. So how do you even begin?

Writing a first draft can be a minefield, and before you even begin you need notes. NOTES! This can be as simple as a notepad, or you can go to town if you want with colourful sticky notes, folders, or even find a big blank wall and get painting. The idea is to cover everything you know so far about the story: each scene step-by-step, any good bits of dialogue, character observations or setting notes, or even just stream of consciousness ‘I had an idea about some stuff and a thing then goes blargh’.

From there, a storyboard can give your piece of writing a specific outline and help when you get further into your first draft, as you’ll probably need to keep an eye on any dramatic changes, plot holes or bits you’ve missed.

If in doubt, start with a storyboard.

2. Be prepared

Sing it again!

So, you’re running around in your daily life, doing daily things, and then *dun dun duuuuuh* inspiration strikes! Do you have a pen?

Do you hell.

The message is: always be prepared. You’ll have the wonderful, golden thought of what you should write for a particular bit, or what a character says, and you promise you’ll remember it. You repeat it over and over, burn it into your brain with mental pyromancy and then you sit down to type:


It’s gone. The vague recollection is there, some words, but it’s completely flat.

It doesn’t matter if you use the note function on your phone, or you prefer paper. You might even have a collection of pretty, unused notebooks that litter the bookshelves of the people who buy them thinking they’re pretty, and then don’t use them. Surprise twist: use those.

3. To edit or not to edit

No matter where you go in the writing world, you’ll see people slumped over desks and shivering in corners at the mere mention of ‘the E word’.

Some people say not to go back and edit while you’re writing, i.e. just sit down, throw out the first go-around in all its crappy glory, THEN start polishing. Other folks prefer to write a bit, then re-read and fine tune at their leisure. Whatever camp you fall into, the thing to remember is that the first draft will be awful.

Just to reiterate: Absolutely. Sodding. Awful.

And that’s totally okay. It’s as it should be. If you threw together a chapter and said ‘holy crap-pants Batman, that’s so perfect I don’t have to change a jingling-jangling thing’ you’d probably be lying. Or delusional. And mostly likely very, very wrong.

I'mage of Ernest Hemingway writing with text quote: "The first draft of anything Is shit."

Don’t start worrying about editing every little bit as you write it, or you might forget the flashes of brilliance that make up your idea. (Note ‘worrying’ is very different to having a curiosity for what you’re working on and how it’s hanging together.)

Accept the awfulness and don’t try to go round in circles changing or polishing each little bit. Embrace it. You don’t expect a baby to shoot out as a grown-up (owwwww) with posh togs on and half a million quid in the bank. It’d be kind of great if it could, at least for the half a mill, but it just doesn’t happen that way. Respect your idea and give yourself time to make mistakes, for your writing to grow as its own wonderful little entity. Then expect it to drive you mad and leave you penniless for the next twenty years.

4. Big up your (brain) buddy

While it’s great to make writing friends, editing friends and ‘please give me a good review and I’ll love you forever’ friends (and ones that bring cake, or gin, or gin cake), that’s not what I mean by buddy.

Mark out five minutes (or more), whatever you can afford time-wise, for your brain buddy. You don’t have to write, or edit, or worry. All you have to do is chill with your mind on your project. No judgement, no drama, just thinking. Let the mind wander over what your idea is, how your creating process is going. Do you need more time, more research, more cake? (Yes).

It may not seem like much, but you can work it into a lot of daily activities. Washing the dishes? Check in with the brain. Walking the dog? Walk and ruminate. Give your brain-buddy a mini hug! It’s working hard to give you amazing ideas, so spend some time with it and wonderful creations may just pop into existence.

5. Perspective!

Writers are always (okay not always, but mostly (okay, not mostly but often)) fragile, imaginative beings, and the human brain seems to love nothing more than filling us with visions of the worst possible scenarios available (which is why you need to be nice to your brain-buddy – see point #4).

“People might not like the book, they might think the characters are wooden, THEY MIGHT LAUGH AT ME.”

In terms of writing your first draft, do whatever you can to put all of this drama aside. This is your first attempt, your canvas, your playground. Throw sand at it, push it off the swings. See how many people you can kill and bring back from the dead. Make huge plot-holes, give the characters six different names, accidentally assassinate an ancient Carpathian warlord.

When you’re ready you can dangle your toes into the world of sharing with other people and asking for opinions, but not right now. You don’t need to think of how people are going to react to it, or if it’s any good. Just get your project down in all its awful glory. The process of writing a first draft is going to kick your butt, but this isn’t a time for doubt or excuses. This is a time for WRITING!

Image of a toddler sitting on the beach with a fist full of sand looking triumphant. Caption: 5 tips for first draft success.

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