And so the journey begins. You’ve got your heroic cast of characters, your plot, your magical items, and you’re ready to tell the most grisly, exciting, romantic, action-packed, fun story of your life. Once you sit down to write the rough draft, the fear hits you. What if this book isn’t good enough? What if it takes me too long to write? What if my characters aren’t good enough? The room begins to spiral around you! “Your work is traaaaaaaash!” the watchers scream from another dimension. “Your rough draft will never be gooooooood enooooooough!” You slam your laptop closed. Damn those watchers. You’ll show them. You’re going to create the best rough draft they’ve ever seen.

How do I write a great rough draft?

The trick to making a good rough draft is to make a trash rough draft. That sounds like it would be really counter-productive, but trust me on this one. There’s a whole reason they call it a ROUGH draft. When you begin a sculpture, you start with some sad unrecognizable lump of clay that no one would ever be able to tell is a human head. The same goes for painting. Every painting goes through an ugly stage where someone would lean over your shoulder and ask, “Are you done yet? Why doesn’t it have close? Why is her face so blue?” GO AWAY IT’S NOT DONE YET. The same can be said for your rough draft. The point of it is to be trash so that you can MAKE IT BETTER.

What should I put into my first draft?

My first drafts tend to be mind vomit. The goal of your first draft should not be to create beautiful, perfect prose. You want to get the sad skeleton down into your word processor that looks roughly like the Nazi’s melted face in Raider’s of the Lost Arc. It should not be pretty, but people should understand that it MAYBE resembles a human being. Your goal is to have a cohesive story from beginning to end, not The Sound and the Fury on the first try.

May writers take too long on their first draft hung up on the details. This first draft should be a really rough pass. You’re laying down your basic colors, basic shapes, basic feeling. It’s going to look like a blurry photograph in the beginning, and that’s perfectly fine! You’re not sending this rough draft to the publisher. No one will see this draft but you and your editors. Their whole job is to critique your project as it forms, help you find places to add the details and a little bit of polish. Without critique, your work is going nowhere, so your first draft can be ugly as sin.

If you want to go back through it once more before your first draft sees editors to add in little bitty details before you send it through to editors, but don’t stress it! You should press forward through your first draft without looking back. It may not be something you’re proud of, but at least you finished it! That’s the most important goal of your first draft: getting your plot down beginning to end without too many hangups.

Use the outline that you’ve created to ease in this process. If you have a good skeleton of an outline, you won’t get hung up on not knowing where your story’s going. It’ll be a great roadmap to keep you driving on the straight and narrow and to avoid potholes. By using the outline as your GPS, you can get your first draft to include all of the major bits that you need. This will help you fly through your story from beginning to end without the pain of writer’s block.

When should I stop writing my first draft?

If you’ve been consistently writing your book at about 2500 words a week for six months, your draft better be close to done. At 2500 words a week, you should be done with an 80k novel in 8 months. If you’re spending any more time on your first draft than that, you’re taking too long before someone critiques it. STOP! Put your pencils down and turn your test in at the front.

Your book runs a serious risk of never being completed if you keep working on the first draft. The more you keep it to yourself, the less likely it is that you’ll never make it to the editing stage. Fear is the biggest thing that holds back a first draft. First, there’s the fear of not having a good book. This fear will keep you changing little details in your work, constantly adding and subtracting. Every time you do, you have roughly the same novel but nothing seems right. PUT THE PENCIL DOWN AND STEP AWAY FROM THE LAPTOP. The reason it doesn’t look right is for reasons you can’t see. You NEED to give this book to another set of eyes (a developmental editor, for example) in order to find those problems to fix.

The second fear is the fear of never getting the work done. This fear can paralyze you as a writer. If it’s never going to get done, then why work on it? Grab a cup of coffee and buckle up hun. It’s time to set some writing goals. You need to set a reasonable goal for yourself, like 2500 words a week, to keep you on track. They don’t have to be perfect. They don’t even have to be beautiful. They just have to be there. Once you push past these two types of fear, your first draft will be done in no time!

Why do I have to write a trash first draft?

Every single art instructor will tell you to do a rough pass on a piece of art, no matter what medium, no matter what subject. All master artists have worked this way, and most master writers will tell you the same thing. The reason for this is to first stomp out any of that doubt and slap something onto the canvass (or in our case, a word document). The second reason for this is to organize our thoughts as best as possible. If we can see the whole picture, no matter how blurry it is, we can better assess (and so can others) what’s wrong with our art. This is NOT a bad thing. At this stage in writing, we WANT people to tell us what’s wrong.

By having a rough story in place, a developmental editor can help us find places to add in new characters, fix plot holes, and repair storylines that are not impactful or emotional. It’s best and easiest to do this when you haven’t put too much work into a story, because you’re working with rough forms, here. Imagine if you spent a year writing and polishing the most beautiful prose you’ve ever written only to have a developmental editor tell you your main character is flat, emotionless, and boring. It would take SO MUCH WORK to go back and fix it. You can save yourself a lot of time and a lot of headaches by leaving your work simple and blocky in the beginning.

Simple is better. You’ll have PLENTY of time in the future to go back and polish your work. A rock that goes into a tumbler the first time is dirty, rough, and brown. Only after SEVERAL passes through the tumbler with finer and finer sand does the rock get more and more polished until it’s the precious gemstone you’ve been waiting to see.


Imagine yourself aggressively vomiting a rainbow. Now, imagine in that rainbow all of the characters of your stories live in the fictional world you’ve created. Look at your word processor. Look at me. Now, look at the processor. Look at me. Now write. Take that beautiful rainbow vomit and spew out grammatically incorrect horrible sentences and bad plot points. Be unabashedly unafraid of terrible first drafts. If you don’t trust me, trust someone who knows absolutely what they’re doing. As the wonderfully and infinitely wise Neil Gaiman has said, “Write down everything that happens in the story and then in your second draft make it look like you knew what you were doing all along.”