The First Draft

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When you are writing a first draft of anything…a novel, a play, a manual, a grocery store list, take the advice of Satchel Paige.

The inimitable Satchel Paige

“Don’t look back.”

Don’t read over what you’ve written before when you begin your day’s work.  Don’t fix any sentences.  Don’t stop and go research to fill in a blank that you do not have the immediate answer for.  Make it up and fix it later.

Don’t think about anything other than putting what is inside your head onto the page/computer screen.

Of course the first draft is the hardest. That’s why a lot of people stop working after they’ve finished it.


The first draft is the thing that we dream of.  We believe that once we have a full chunk of pages, we will have a book.  Acknowledging that the first draft is the equivalent of a sculptor going down to the quarry to buy a big slab of marble, or a mason buying a skid of bricks and 100 pounds of mortar is a very difficult thing to do.

But alas, the first draft is an end that serves as the beginning of another craft.  Editing.  And editing is not re-writing.  Editing is a process that gives you the work orders for your re-write. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I cannot overemphasize how important it is NOT TO RE-WRITE  your first draft. Until you reach its final two words…THE END.

There are a million reasons why you shouldn’t re-write your first draft before you’ve finished it and created a coherent editorial revision plan. Here are a bunch of them:

  • If you start re-writing before you have a finished draft, you’ll start “falling in love.”  This means that once you re-write, you’ll invariably come up with something great.  Something that you will never want to cut.  This is a recipe for disaster.  Once you are afraid to cut something that isn’t working, you’re sunk.  You’ll have a bunch of great sentences that do not add up to anything.  Worse, you’ll get so deeply involved in “building” sentences and paragraphs that you’ll lose sight of the big picture.  Fast.  You won’t be able to come back. Trust me.
  • If you start re-writing, you will despair.  The reason is obvious.  The first draft of anything, until you’ve written 10,000 stories, is usually complete shit.  That’s just the definition of a first draft.  If you despair, you will not finish the draft. Simple logic.
  • If you start re-writing, you’ll do anything in you power to run away from your desk. This is because re-writing requires minutes if not hours of labor on a single sentence, sometimes a single word.  If you do not have all of your story elements locked, you are wasting your time trying to find the bon mot.  You will probably write some great stuff, but that great stuff will probably not have anything to do with your global story.  Trust me.  It just won’t.  It will be tangentially related, but not directly related.  You will then go off following lines of thought and reasoning that make sense in the context of the smaller sentence/paragraph/chapter structure and lose the long thread. Which will keep you from finishing the first draft.

So if you are not supposed to re-write or edit your first draft and you are just supposed to plow through until the end, how do you do that?

This is a million dollar question.  Probably a ten million dollar question.  The reason why this is such a difficult thing to answer is that it depends upon the writer.  It’s completely subjective.  Some writers start writing their first draft from page one and follow the voices in their heads until the end of the story.

I find that impossible to comprehend because I could never do that.  I have a problem “letting myself go.”  I have a problem allowing myself to “play.”  There are a myriad of psychological reasons why I have these characteristics and I probably could write a bunch of great novels about them if I have the discipline to do so, but the important thing is that I recognize my limitations.

I panic when someone says to me “relax, go with the flow.”  I used to punish myself because I was so uptight, but now I understand that I’m just not that sort of cat.  I’m a mixed up cat that needs to plan obsessively as a way to provide myself with a structure, or a road map to get to the finish line.

The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know is the result of 22 years of editing and writing.  It’s taken me that long to figure out how to put all of my experience down on paper.  The way I did it may not be the way you’ll write your first draft, but I’ll tell you how I did it in case it helps you figure out the way to do it for yourself.

Here’s what I did to write a first draft.

  1. I created an outline.
  2. I didn’t go too deep into describing each step in the outline.  Instead, I came up with single CHAPTER TITLES that would give me narrative focus. From these simple notes (Genres have Conventions) I knew the beginning, middle and end of each chapter just by the title.
  3. Once I had a list of chapter titles, I put them into groups.  These would become the Eight Parts of the final book.  Each Part ended up having between 6 to 12 chapters.
  4. After I had the Parts with Chapters road map, I made a pact with myself that I would not do any other work on any particular work day, no matter how pressing or urgent, until I tackled one of the chapters.  I did not set a word limit on what I needed to accomplish.  Because word limits don’t really mean anything.  Once you start writing based upon an idea that gives you a goose, you’ll know when you’ve finished riffing.
  5. I pledged to myself that however many words or however lackluster the prose, I had to stop once I sensed I’d covered the subject.
  6. The next day, I did not look at anything I’d written the day before. I merely scrolled all the way to the bottom of the manuscript, hit INSERT PAGE BREAK, and then wrote that day’s title headline centered on the page and started anew.
  7. I did not go back to fix anything (okay I did when I first began and blew out five or six times before I learned my lesson) until I had written something for each of the 70 chapters of my eight part book.

I finished my first draft of The Story Grid about two and a half years ago.  I’ve been chiseling away at it ever since.

But if I’d never finished that first draft…

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  1. Jack Price on March 13, 2015 at 6:18 am

    Hi Shawn, Earlier this week on you mentioned in a comment that “Some day I’m going to write a very straightforward book called “HOW TO WRITE A BOOK”. I didn’t know you would do it this very week 😉 Thanks for the helpful advice. Jack

  2. Mary Doyle on March 13, 2015 at 6:25 am

    Wise advice – I wish I’d followed it when I first encountered it in Steve’s “Do the Work.” When I started my first draft I wrote for four months without looking back. Then I let my guard down, invited Resistance to move in with me and stopped to read over what I’d written. Huge mistake! It cost me big time before I found my footing again and got back on track. Thanks for this important reminder Shawn! “Don’t look back” should be framed above every writer’s desk during the first draft.

  3. Helena Bouchez on March 13, 2015 at 7:06 am

    Thanks so much for this, Shawn. It really is SO essential to keep the writing separate from the editing. Goes for shorter forms too. Also, thank you for talking about your process as I also need to create outline “guardrails” to remind me where the sides of the road are lest I end up miles off road in a field of daisies.

  4. Janice Crago on March 13, 2015 at 7:09 am

    Oh how this made me laugh, especially these two lines: “If you start re-writing, you will despair,” and “If you start re-writing, you’ll do anything in you power to run away from your desk.” I’ve been doing both all week as I try to grunt out a project for a client.

    Try as I might (OK, probably not all that hard), I can’t plow ahead and get that crap first draft down. I’m constantly sweeping, cleaning and polishing along the way. The timing of this post inspires me to pull on waders and overlook the crap and grunt this thing out. Merci!

  5. Barbara on March 13, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Thanks, Shawn!

  6. Michael Hesse on March 13, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Excellent article! I powered through 75k in two months on my current project. I’ve let it sit for six weeks and began revising/editing two months ago. I’ve completed 25k on the second draft, but perhaps half of that is now new. I hope to have the 2nd draft complete in three more months before I print it out and let it sit for another month. At that point I’ll make the decision if it needs a third draft.

  7. Joel D Canfield on March 13, 2015 at 10:01 am

    I just finished my first Robert Crais (Elvis Cole) mystery (probably at your suggestion in an interview, Shawn.)

    Joe Pike has a red arrow tattooed on each shoulder, pointing forward.

    Ima write like Joe Pike.

  8. Dick Yaeger on March 13, 2015 at 10:56 am

    I’m going to take some issue with you, Shawn, and suggest that you’re painting with too wide a brush. For self-help, memoirs, and the like, casual outlines and crude drafts are fine. But a novel, especially one with a complex story line, requires outlining down to the scene level, perhaps to the paragraph level. And then, when you insert that perfectly crafted sentence (“My most ancient memory is of a battlefield.”) you just spent six hours on, it excites and thrills you. Before you realize it, the sun is coming up, and discipline is unnecessary.

  9. Brady Longmore on March 13, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    I just finished the first draft of my first novel (207,126 words!) and I think your advice is good, even though I didn’t follow it exactly. For me personally, I will sometimes go over what I had written previously just to get my brain back into the flow of the story. But, I didn’t have an outline to go by, I had it all in my head pretty much. So I needed that point of reference before continuing on with the story.

  10. Michael Beverly on March 13, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    I’m curious why you don’t use Scrivener?

    Instead of inserting a “page break” you just have a new folder.

    And it’s easier to make notes, compile to other formats, etc, etc.

    Seems all the students use it, but not the teacher.

  11. Jan O'Hara on March 13, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    If you’re in the mood to elaborate, Shawn, I’d love to see a few examples of useful chapter titles.

  12. @MorgynStar on March 13, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    You know just how much you are loved. (All bad letters start this way, yes?) You know we wait fingernails dragging on the chalkboard for the Gird to be published.

    That said, I take exception to: The first draft of anything, until you’ve written 10,000 stories, is usually complete shit.

    Why channel Steven King rather than Pressfield? In the genus– old chestnuts, this one could truly fall by the wayside.

    Some of my best work comes when I’m drafting. No holds bared, let the whole bloody thing out drafting. Not in the sense of polished, but visceral. And that is the juice of which story is built, IMO.

  13. Alta on March 13, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    I used to feel frustated after writing my first draft and now I know this is normal. It’s a great advice but I guess the process will be bit different for non fiction book.

  14. JoAnn on March 14, 2015 at 6:12 am

    Wish I had this advice back in 2007 when I started my book. The “Write an outline” is crucial. My book mentor told me I must write one. I did not want to do so. Didn’t work on my book for many months. Once I finally did it, I couldn’t write without it. I’ll use an outline and all your and Steve’s advice with my next book.

  15. Mitch on March 14, 2015 at 8:19 am

    Shawn – this makes perfect sense!

    And it comes a the perfect time for me: I am on page 60 of a screen play, and I have been finding myself editing and re-writing instead of plowing forward.

    No more!

    Thank you for this blog.


  16. Gary Neal Hansen on March 14, 2015 at 11:14 am

    Wonderful kick in the rear, Shawn. Thanks.
    I can’t wait for your insights about that next phase of the process:
    “a coherent editorial revision plan.”


  17. Vincent Pugliese on March 14, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    I just scheduled the ship date for the book that I am just beginning to write. So much of what you just covered has been running through my brain. This was so incredibly helpful! Thanks Shawn.

  18. Gabrielle on March 21, 2015 at 4:28 am

    This explains why I have…strike have…”had” no fewer than five unfinished first drafts. Thank you.

  19. BWD on April 1, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    Steve’s right, unfortunately.

    Give yourself permission to suck. Don’t even correct typos. Take the red underlined notice of a misspelled word as a badge of honor when cranking out your first draft.

    Excellent article.

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