Monday, January 9

What a First Draft Should Look Like

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Your Writing Questions Answered Series


Q: As a new writer, I always have the worst time writing first drafts. I keep expecting to write a finished product in one go, then I change the story by chapter three, and I never manage to finish the story I started. I get disheartened when I go back and read the sloppy, plothole-filled mess. Any suggestions?

A: First thing, don’t be so hard on yourself. First drafts are usually sloppy, plothole-filled messes, and nobody gets them perfect the first time (unless they have decades of experience as an author, and even then it’s rare). As the saying goes, writing is rewriting, and most of the real work on a novel is done after the first draft.

A first draft is just a brain dump to find a home for the story rattling around in your head and a way to figure out the best way to tell said story. That’s it.

The role of a first draft is to:

1. Get the story down.


How much work you like to do beforehand determines how “finished” a first draft might be. For example, if you outline extensively, odds are your first drafts will be fairly clean and organized storywise. If you prefer to pants or figure out the plot as you go along, your first drafts will probably be rougher and take more revision. But as long as you get the story down in enough detail you personally need to be able to write a “good” first draft (this will vary by writer and their expectations), the draft is doing its job.

2. Explore the idea and characters.


For some (like me), a first draft is about exploring the idea and/or characters. It isn’t until I see them in action that I know who they really are. Sometimes you need to get in and write in that world with your characters to figure out what you want to do. If you’re the type who does extensive character work before writing, odds are this aspect of the draft will be solid and your characters will start out as three-dimensional people.

3. Decide on style and voice.


Most of the time you know what style, POV, and voice you want to write in, but it’s not uncommon to be torn between first and third person, or using single or multiple points of view. You might need to kick out a draft to see which you prefer or which style works best.

(Here's more on how first drafts don't always suck)

What Should a First Draft Have?


Opinions will vary here (it is writing after all), but I believe a good first draft contains the following elements:

A conflict with a beginning, middle, and ending: There must be a problem that needs solving, and the attempts to solve that problem. You should know how the story problem starts, how the protagonist gets involved with the problem (the inciting event), what she does to fix the problem and get what she wants, and what’s causing her trouble (the middle), and what she has to do to resolve the problem (the climax).

Characters and setting: You need characters and places for them to act. Some of them might have placeholder names, such as Old Guy, and you might have [need to research downtown Chicago] in some areas, but you at least know the basic people in the story and where it takes place. A general sense of the character arc (if applicable) is also recommended to help you create your inner conflict.

A sense of voice, tone, and mood: The narrative itself should tell you the type of novel is it. For example, if it’s a comedy, you’ll see humor and jokes. If it’s a romance, you’ll have a romantic vibe and lots of fun banter between the romantic leads. Horror novels will feel scary, fantasies will feel magical and otherworldly. The first draft is where you test how you want the book to sound and feel. If you planned on writing a suspense thriller, but there are laughs on most of the pages, that’s a red flag that what you wrote isn’t the novel you thought it was.

These are the critical building blocks of a novel and will create a solid enough story foundation to build upon.

(Here's more on writing a first draft)

Common Types of First Drafts


The rough idea summary: These drafts are often a few steps beyond a detailed outline. The general gist of the story is there, but the structure and pacing is out of whack and it needs a lot of fleshing out and development still. But you have enough down to see the pieces in place and determine if the story can fill a whole novel. Grammar, spelling, and word choice was not a priority and needs a lot of fixing.

The messy s#!tty draft: One of the more common drafts, it’s a manuscript that mostly captures the story and characters, even if it needs work to tighten and clean it up. There will probably be some gaping plotholes, some worldbuilding issues, pacing problems, and any number of things that you didn’t realize were a problem until you got the draft down. The text is equally messy, even if it does say generally what you want it to say. It’s just said said well.

The quick draft: This is a draft that rushes out of the brain onto the page. Odds are it’s a haphazard mess with ideas going all over the place, and plenty of holes, but you see how the story works (and doesn’t work) and what you can do to make it better. The text itself likely has a lot of errors, but the basic book is there.

The decent draft:
This is a draft you put together with care, took the time to think about the story and characters and fixed most of the holes or issues you found as you wrote it. It’s a good draft, though the pacing is probably a little loose, and while it needs revising, it won’t need a ton of rewriting. The text is also decent, with few errors, though odds are some lazy writing slipped in that needs fixing.

The pretty clean, but needs some revising draft:
This is a story that comes out of your head like it wanted to be written. The story flowed, the writing was good, and all it really needs is some overall tightening and a little developing of a few weak areas.—usually whatever your weak at. The text is good, and a quick search of common trouble words will clean it right up.

The ready to go draft:
This ultra-rare beast is a first draft that needs polishing and little else. The story came out the way you wanted it to right from the start, the characters are fleshed out and strong, the setting is rich, the pace is solid, the prose is clean, and everything reads like a finished novel should.

For most of us, out first drafts will land in the rough to messy camps, with a smaller group hitting the decent to pretty clean drafts, and an exclusive few hitting the ready to go draft.

(Here's more on how perfection gets in our writing way)

It’s important to note—writing skill has nothing to do with where you fall on the messy draft scale. It’s all about your personal process and what you need to write during a first draft. Bestselling authors with twenty novels published might write s#!tty first drafts all the time, just as brand-new writers can write decent and clean drafts. Writing either one doesn’t mean anything except that your process is to write that type of first draft. So don’t feel bad if you write messy drafts, and don’t think you’re better than anyone else if you write ready to go drafts.

First drafts are the first step of writing a novel, and there are so many steps to get from idea to published book. Don’t worry about what yours is like—just focus on writing the first draft you need to write the best book you can.

Which type of first draft do you write?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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14 comments:

  1. I fall somewhere inbetween thr rough and the messy s#!tty draft!

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    1. My last few have fallen here as well.

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  2. I think I've written all of these types of first drafts at one time or another.

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    1. I've written all but the last two :)

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  3. I have one messy s#!tty draft sitting on a virtual shelf right now. I lossed my train of thought on it. I'm on the first revision of a book in which the first draft was a decent one. Guess which one I'm pretty sure I should always shoot for.

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    1. Shooting for a solid draft is always my plan, but like my characters, plans often go astray, hehe.

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  4. I have many abandoned novels like that. It turned out that when I found an idea I really loved, I had no problems finishing the first draft.

    Also, not every idea can be a novel. Sometimes the early changes and inability to commit is really you realizing that.

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    1. This is so true, and we don't always realize that until we try to write it and it stalls or dies on us. Good reminder!

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  5. I have many abandoned novels like that. It turned out that when I found an idea I really loved, I had no problems finishing the first draft.

    Also, not every idea can be a novel. Sometimes the early changes and inability to commit is really you realizing that.

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  6. I don't consider it a first draft until I can create a solid beginning, middle and end. I hate large plotholes. Can't call the draft complete until I have a good idea of what those three parts look like. At this point I'm close to a messy s**tty draft but I'm good with that. Great post Janice.

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    1. I like that. Until you get to a point that satisfies you, it's not a draft. Good way of looking at it.

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  7. Thank you so much for doing a post on this! It's heled me a lot. I have a tendency to edit and re-edit my first few chapters , never managing to move on until its perfect. what's helped me with that is to move back to analog: notebook paper! It forces me to not stress about perfection and just get on with the rough draft. Plus, it feels so nice to hold tangible pages, to hold tangible progress on my story. It's motivational. Again, thanks for doing this post. It's nice to know that a first draft is supposed to be a mess for good reason!

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    1. Happy to help. :) I've heard other writers say that about pen and paper. Glad you found something that works for you!

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  8. I am definitely in the Messy Sh&$ty draft stage. What you describe as a 'clean first draft' seems like a far off third draft! This is a great post, and as always perfectly timed... It's once again motivated me to keep going on that messy draft!

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