Writing the First Draft

A series looking at drafting novels and long-form fiction. This essay deals with the first draft.

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When writing a new story, particularly one over a few thousand words, several drafts will be required. This is a necessary process, as the story will improve with each draft a writer undertakes.

The first draft is where the outline of the plot comes into being. The beginning, middle, and end are all drawn up; though the specifics of their execution is still in flux. It is also where the characters are first born.

As simple as it sounds, a first draft must be written. It cannot solely exist in the writer’s mind, but must transition onto paper (whether physically or digitally). Some will write by hand, others use typewriters, but these days the most common method is to type using a computer or laptop and some form of word-processing software. A writer must work through it, writing one sentence after another, until the end is reached.

There is always a temptation to go back and rewrite sections as style improves or a voice is defined, and whilst this can be useful to ensure consistency it can also be unwise in the long-term. Excessive reworking of sentences and paragraphs can be counter-productive to the overall narrative. Refining writing is for later drafts; the initial writing of the piece should be, quite simply, to write it. Concentrate on getting through the story instead of worrying about the finer details.

Writing does not have to be done in order but each chapter or section must be written within itself from start to finish. Then, once complete, they can be arranged into a definitive order. That being said, writing from the start to the end allows the writer to develop their voice and style, and facilitates effective character arcs. It also allows for a more cohesive plot.

Narrative dead-ends or lack of inspiration for specific scenes can bring about a loss of momentum, and whilst this can be frustrating, the best advice is to backtrack a few pages. Start the section again, or even the one before, and approach it from a different angle. Often, plot problems can be solved with a fresh approach. It is better to try writing something in a different way and move past the difficult area than for the writer to concern themselves with writers’ block.

The characters themselves need to be alive, but a writer can skip over some and worry about fleshing them out later. The most important characters in the first draft are the protagonist, the antagonist, and those few key characters that are integral to the plot.

Concentrating on real, fully-fledged main characters is key to the first draft. They must come to life, as later they will need to make their own decisions.

The plot itself can be planned in minute detail, or can be invented and changed at will as the narrative progresses. Whilst it is important to have some semblance of plot, the main point of the first draft is to transition the ideas from the writer’s head to the page, and therefore the particulars of the plot can be further defined and fixed in later edits.

The first draft is, arguably, the most important, as it is where the story comes into being. It is the conception of the tale. It can take weeks or years to write, and can be poorly written without justification, as it is just the first draft. Many more will come, and those are where the writing is improved.

Once the first draft is completed, put it to one side and do not look at it. Time needs to pass before moving on to the second draft, and thinking it over whilst not constantly re-reading what has been written will give the writer the opportunity to tackle narrative issues within their own mind. After a suitable period of time—anything from a month to a year—has passed, it will be time to return to the story.


Next: Second Draft

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Originally from Thanet, J A DuMairier enjoys writing and long walks in the country.

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