IWSG: The First Draft

This entry is part of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group – a group of writers helping each other deal with insecurities that are part of the writing process.

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A consistent problem that I’ve always had when writing is getting the rough draft of the story down on paper. I enjoy the research and world-building – for instance today I’ve been looking at animals that are able to control electricity for background to a science fiction idea. I also enjoy structuring stories – building a kind of scaffolding to outline the key events, how the characters are going to change and when the key pieces of information will be revealed to the reader. But I struggle when it comes to writing the first full version of the story.

This is objectively a bit odd, but I think for me the difference is that notes and story outlines are only meant for my understanding. The format is different, just as a script is a different format to a novel or a finished film. Transforming that outline, that series of ideas into a draft version of the story is the big leap for me – and one I always tend to be reluctant about. I cringe at thinking about the awful things I’ve written, bad ideas and good ideas that didn’t work – and the reaction of the reader to these flawed versions of my fictional worlds. There’s a quote by the American sportswriter Red Smith: “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”
I think, while melodramatic, this has some truth to it. Writing should be an opening up of the writer’s psyche, their values and worldview (or at least the values and world-views that they consider legitimate and worthy of respect). The possibility of misinterpretation, based on a reader reading an early version of the story that doesn’t work is, for me, something that holds me back.

But the only way around this is to write. Sit down, start to write, carry on writing. Don’t stop. Get some rough notes, build that into an outline, keep going. The sooner the rubbish early version is down on paper, the sooner it can be transformed into a superior, improved version. Nothing emerges fully formed, and many early versions of iconic works of fiction were comically awful. At one point Star Trek’s Spock was intended to be a red-skinned Martian who ingested food directly through a plate in his stomach. In an early version of the first movie Indiana Jones was intended to be in love with an eleven-year-old girl. Thankfully those ideas were abandoned before they made their way into the canonical stories, but they were at one point seriously considered by the creators.

While I’m still learning to overcome this problem, I do have two pieces of advice, that I’ve used on and off over the years.
The first is to begin the writing process with a ‘brain dump’ – basically to write whatever I can think of, uninterrupted, in a constant flow, at the beginning of the day. (Or when I begin to write.) The idea behind this is that it gets me into the frame of mind to write, keep writing, not turn back, just keep on going. This writing isn’t supposed to be good, in fact it may well be entirely unusable. The process is more about getting into the frame of mind of writing something, anything.
The second is a site called Writeordie. It gives the options to set both word targets and time limits, with various extra encouragements to write. (These include peaceful background noise that goes away if there’s too long a period of no words being typed, and a setting that means words will be deleted if no further words are added.

Obviously these solutions have no impact on the quality of the writing, but that’s for a later version. To get a decent amount of work completed, it’s important to be fairly prolific. And that means overcoming self-consciousness, and writing quickly.

8 thoughts on “IWSG: The First Draft”

    1. For me it can be a slog through the first draft (other than through sections that flows more easily). I do tend to feel the benefit of the research when I get into a flow though.


  1. I love how on Writeordie words are deleted after enough time passes without anything being added. Sometimes that’s all it takes for the writing flow to come back. Maybe that one word was the problem.

    Anyway, great tip. I know it always helps me to at least start a draft with uninterrupted writing, whether good or bad.

    With Love,


  2. I’m the same way. I just have to dive in. I envy those who have the entire novel outlined, chapter by chapter, before they even start Chapter One. I have to at least get a couple of chapters down before I even know who the characters really are!


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