Top 10 Tips for Writing a Crappy First Draft

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All writers have little tricks for how to get the first draft of their novel down on paper. I don’t plan at all, but I do allow myself to go back each time I sit down to write and do a little bit of editing; perhaps just 20% of the writing time I have available. I tell myself it’s to get ‘in the zone,’ but really it’s because I worry that I might be run over by a bus and someone would see my crappy first draft. Another way I mitigate this possibility is by writing [THIS IS SHITE] (square brackets included) every so often. This technique (which I wouldn’t really recommend) also silences my inner critic for a little while which means I can carry on churning out words.

But what other tips and tricks do writers use? I asked a few author friends and below I have compiled the top ten ways of pushing your word count forward.

  1. Make notes as you go along. Kerry Drewery: I work with a notebook by my side and never ever look back until I get to the end. But if I decide something needs changing as I’m going along, for example, if character’s age or details need changing, I make a note of it. Then when I’ve finished the first draft I work through it with the notebook. Jo Bloom: I do the same thing using Scrivener.
  2. Allow yourself to write badly. Sarah Jasmon: Give yourself permission to sometimes write badly and not worry. It was such a relief when I realised I didn’t have to get it right all the time. Shelley Harris: I write a ‘Fuck-it’ draft – a dirty first draft where I push on and don’t look back.
  3. Give yourself a word count. Fionnuala Kearney: I bash out that first draft and I mean bash it out! I avoid too much editing as I go along by giving myself a daily word count target. Me: I keep a daily diary of what I’ve been writing and what my word count is – it’s very motivating to see it going up.
  4. Write something you’re interested in. Jon Teckman: Sometimes I stick in a scene about something I’m really interested in, just to keep writing. For example, if I get really stuck, I make up an excellent Chinese restaurant and take myself off for an imaginary pig-out! Me: Sometimes I skip to a scene further along in the novel that is more exciting to write.
  5. Read a few pages of someone else’s book. Me: If I know that I’m struggling to write new words because I can’t get the style correct, I’ll sometimes stop and re-read a few pages of a book that I really admire to get into the zone again. At the moment Richard Ford’s Wildlife seems to work quite well.
  6. Write a mini-first draft. Fleur Smithwick: I compromise on planning by bashing out a mini-first draft of about 20,000 words. It’s like a condensed book, split into around 70-80 scenes with a bit of dialogue. This way when I’m writing the full novel it flows, it’s fun to do and I don’t lose the momentum.
  7. Do a bit of editing and then move forward. Vanessa Lafaye: I can get caught in the trap of endlessly polishing and not moving on, so I try to limit myself to reading only the previous scene. I do some tinkering, but it doesn’t slow me down that much, and does put me in the ‘zone’ again.
  8. Write a chapter plan. Terry Stiastny: Sometimes bashing ahead with no plan can leave you with lots of words but no book. My approach is a compromise – a chapter-by-chapter outline, so I have an idea of what needs to happen next. Vanessa Lafaye: My chapter plan is literally one line with the main events. It shows me the shape of the book and whether it’s logical, and where the gaps are. And sometimes it reads, ‘Something happens here’ when I don’t know. Jo Bloom: I’ve realised that I’m a compromiser. I need to have one hand on a plan – and know the shape and skeleton of the story – but I leave a lot of room for the story to shape on the page. Kerry Drewery: I have a start, probable finish and key points along the way, but I need to give it room to develop a little and can’t plan much more than that. Sarah Vaughan: I do a chapter by chapter plan that changes between drafts.
  9. Don’t worry about what you might cut later. Sarah Vaughan: Whenever I get despondent about having to cut thousands of words, I remind myself that nothing is wasted. All writing is good practice.
  10. And the bottom line? Jo Bloom: SHUT THE VOICES UP and just keep writing.

Do you have any other tips on how to write a first draft? Please share them in the comments.

Once you’ve got your first draft down, read the second in this series of blog posts on revising.

46 thoughts on “Top 10 Tips for Writing a Crappy First Draft

  1. Thanks for sharing Claire. I’m just relieved if I get my butt in the chair and a scene comes to mind and I can get lost in all the voices and action. I can’t really keep up with my mind so I seem to travel to far off places and eventually land back down when my kid comes home from school or I have a chore to do etc. Those are magical and rare moments of joy and abandonment. I guess that’s why I write.

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  2. I’m just finishing up Anne Lamott’s “bird by bird” and she mentions some of the same tips. I’m trying to write every day, keeping the re-reading and editing to a bare minimum. Thank for the additional tips, Claire.

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  3. Thanks for the invaluable tips. Been stuck lately cause i think my story took a blank turn and getting back in the zone is hard.
    This just gave me a great boost 😀

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  4. Great thoughts, Claire. I have done many of these at one time or another. I find with some writers, they really inspire me to drop the book and go write, either because they’re so good or because I think, “I could do better than this.” 🙂

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  5. Interesting Claire; Steve Jeffries, mutual friend, sent me this link and there’s some good stuff here. I’ve always been a pantster rather than a plotter but I wonder if in fact this is because I always hope I will write beautiful and relevant prose first time hence never wanting to spend time setting out the detailed plot (never works, of course but I can dream!). I think doing a short version as suggested in #6 might be worth trying.

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  6. I think of the armature of a sculpture. I make a rough skeletal plan, then I might dive straight into the scene I first imagined and that made me excited enough to want to write in the first place. I rough that out, then stand back and see if I can build a whole story round this. If so, I start building, usually from the beginning, but the beginning can later turn out to be half way through, or become the prologue that gets cut. I realise this sounds chaotic, but the framework remains there in my mind’s eye the whole time, like a completed sculpture.

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    • I need to find a way to build that armature. I can really only see the first scene and the characters. I give them a difficult situation and let them do whatever it is they want to do.

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  7. Thanks for that! Very helpful. It’s good to know we’re all struggling against similar demons! The only thing I’d add is something about TRUST. You have to learn to trust yourself and trust your writing enough token going which, for me, is harder than it sounds. I always reach a point when I think oh dear me this is awful it’s going nowhere … and I can easily give up at that point. So that’s when i tell myself to trust to the process, hang in there, keep going. And even if it does eventually come to nothing, I tell myself no writing’s ever wasted. It’s all taking me somewhere closer to where i want to be.

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    • That’s such a good point. And hardest of all when you’re writing the first draft of your first book. It’s impossible to know whether it will work out, but you just have to trust that it will.

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  8. That was indeed great advice. I think life had become easier had I got them earlier. How many times I stopped writing thinking it’s not going good. Keeping trust and allowing yourself to write “badly”. Are there things in store for editing the first draft. Would love to hear that..

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  9. If I know the scene I’ve just written is crap, I immediately rewrite it without stopping or deleting anything. That’s a trick Frank Capra used when filming. He kept the cameras rolling and told the actors to run back into the shot and redo the scene.

    Later, I’ll italicize the whole crappy scene to cut later (if I so choose).

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  10. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.

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