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How to Finish Your First Draft

There are a lot of ‘how to get started’ guides and ‘how to finish your draft’ articles on the internet. I know. But I’m going to give you another one, because maybe you’ve read through a ton and you haven’t found one that works for you. The cool thing about writing is that there’s almost always a different way to do things, and if I can help just one person by giving an approach maybe they hadn’t seen yet, I’ll feel like I did something right.

Also, I’m trying to help a friend of mine out. She doesn’t have a ton of time to do research when it comes to effective writing, but she’s got a story inside her that’s dying to come out, so I’m typing this up to try and help her out by giving her a ‘how-to’ that might actually get her past the first few chapters (a problem she’s gone through many times in the past).

These are some of the tricks I employ when I’m going into a first draft. For those who don’t know, I don’t do a ton of pre-planning when I sit down to write, I mostly just have an idea and roll with it. However, I’ve written these tips with the mindset that anyone should be able to follow them, whether you have a super in-depth plot, or whether you’ve got bare bones.

So, without further ado, here’s my first draft process, from start to finish:

1. Have an idea

Whatever that idea might be. It could be as simple as “The Hobbit, but in space” or “what if Groundhog Day was a horror story?” It might not even be an idea like that. You might start with an idea for a character. It’s totally valid to have a character pop into your head first. “Okay, this character basically came into my head fully formed, I know everything from his name to his darkest secret. Let’s see if he can achieve his dream of being a famous Youtuber.”

Wherever you want to start is the right place. We’re far too early on to be worrying about originality, marketability, etc. Right now we’ve just got an idea and a desire. Once you’ve got an idea, no matter how basic…

2. Expand that idea

This could mean anything, or nothing. Maybe you write down a few bullet points. Maybe you simply think out the ending, figure out if [Character] does achieve his dreams, or maybe an obstacle that’s in this way. Maybe this is just doing some Google research and learning about algorithms, or talking to some of your friends with Youtube channels and leaning how the platform works.

It could also be more complex than that. Maybe you want to know what you’re doing before you go into it. Maybe you make a chart, make some note-cards, write your scenes on sticky-notes, make a spreadsheet. Whatever it is that you do to prepare your story, including nothing, is enough. Just make sure you’re in love with the idea and you keep finding new ways to make yourself excited about writing it.

3. Do something related to the piece every day

Don’t worry if you can’t sit down for hours and write every single day. A lot of people will preach from rooftops about how “WRITERS WRITE EVERY DAY” but I don’t believe that, and I never have.

That doesn’t mean you should only think about writing when you’re getting ready to do it. Writing is a lot of thinking about things. Think about your characters, your plot, think of ways to make things stronger. Maybe you don’t have time to write one day but you can jot down notes about your side characters, or a fun sub-plot you thought of. Or maybe you’ve typed some things on your phone or made a voice memo for yourself about it. If you spend enough time thinking about the piece, it makes it easier to write it when you can carve out some time to actually sit down and get writing.

4. Write as often as possible

I know I just said don’t worry about writing every day, but if you spend all your time thinking and none of it doing, you’re never going to get anything accomplished. Do you want to be someone who’s finished a book, or the person who sits around thinking “oh, I’ll write when I get time”?

The truth is, many writers have full time jobs, families, children, etc., and not all that much time to write. It’s not about “oh, I have a whole day to do nothing, I think I’ll write today.” It’s about making the time to write. Even if it’s just 20 minutes a day. 20 minutes of writing is better than 0 minutes of writing. This is why I say think about the piece as often as possible. Take notes, make plans, even when you’re not writing, that way you can use those 20 minutes (or however much time you’ve carved out for your writing) much more effectively than if you hadn’t. Keeping that in mind…

5. Try to write full scenes (sometimes it’s hard to pick up in the middle of a scene)

The only reason I say this is because if you’re in the middle of a scene, it can be harder to pick it up next time you sit down to write. When you get writing, there’s a certain energy to a scene, and leaving in the middle can change or diminish the energy from that scene, making the second half fall flat or sometimes even feel completely different, like you were writing two different scenes.

Of course, this isn’t always possible. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, just a suggestion from lots of experience of dropping and picking up scenes only to have the first and second half feel completely different because of my mood/mindset/etc while writing.

I used to think the opposite way, that leaving in the middle of a scene made it easier to recapture the energy, but it becomes nearly impossible to keep up with that energy when you’ve got full-time work/family/kids/responsibilities. A stressful day at work can make your writing read differently than when you’ve had a great day. Neither is inherently bad, but when mixed back to back in the same scene, it risks being jarring and making one half need significantly more work when you get to the editing phase.

Speaking of editing…

6. If you’re tempted to ‘edit’ close your current document with your writing and start a new one. You can always add those words to it later.

I’m very serious about this. Reading your own writing before it’s ready to be edited, or finished, can really hurt both your confidence in the piece as well as your chances of finishing. The way I see it, if you only have 20 minutes to write on a day, do you really want to spend 10-15 of that reading the last scene you wrote, picking it apart, finding all the words that don’t belong and passive voice, etc. before you try and add new words?

I’m of the firm belief that you should only be reading enough to refresh your memory (if you stopped in the middle of a scene), and if you’re starting a new one, you shouldn’t have to read anything at all. If you need to, make a new document in MS Word, a new Google doc, whatever it may be, and do your writing there. You can always add those words to your main document later on. I really think that avoiding your inner editor at all costs is the key to finishing a first draft (which is our goal here, not to make anything perfect).

7. Set Achievable Goals

What I mean by this, is that a lot of writers, both new and old, often set goals that are outside their attainable means. For some, it’s a word count, a page count, even sometimes a certain amount of time they want to dedicate to their writing a day or week.

8. Find a Strategy for “On the Go” Writing

If carving time out at home is super hard, try jotting down a few notes on the go. Try Google Docs, a voice recorder app on your phone, a private discord server, or your phone’s notepad. You might have to transcribe/type it up later, but having something is still much better than having nothing.

9. Don’t give up.

It’s easy to think it’s “taking too long” to write, or your story is “not good enough” but everyone writes at their own pace. You don’t have to write a ton of words every day, as long as you’re making forward progress, you’re doing better than most. Or maybe you just think “oh, this is bad. No one wants to read this.” You don’t know that. Maybe you’ll get a great idea near the end and be able to fix it on revision. Stick with the idea. Have faith in your idea. Believe in it, because you’re the first person that ever will.

10. Use your notes if you get stuck.

Everyone gets writer’s block. Do your best to use the resources you’ve left yourself to get through it. You can edit a badly written page, but you can’t edit if there’s nothing there because you let writer’s block get the better of you.

11. Don’t race yourself to the finish line.

When the ending is nigh, it can be so tempting to sprint for the finish line. (I’m a runner, I actually know this for a fact). It’s so important to leave yourself a solid foundation for the ending, and not rush it just so you can say it’s done. (When I was writing VB, I did this, and now I have to COMPLETELY re-write the ending because I got ahead of myself and just wanted to say I was done.)

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