How to Write A First Draft
No matter what you’re writing, starting it is often the hardest part. You may have plenty of ideas and not know where to begin, or you may have no ideas and have nothing to begin with. Regardless of your situation, once you take that first step you’ll often find that writing becomes much easier, and once you have a complete first draft, revision and editing are a breeze.
Whether you’re writing a short story, an academic essay, a speech, a script, or even just a book report, you may find yourself stuck on a blank page. If you’re unlucky, you may find yourself stuck throughout your piece as well, staring at your cursor and wondering how you’re going to fill all that empty space. Taking a few steps can make this process easier and get you through that tough first draft.
Step One: Plan it out.
Creating a first draft doesn’t mean you have to immediately start pulling ideas from nothing and putting them on the page perfectly. In fact, writing doesn’t even have to start with the draft itself. Putting together an outline or just a couple pages of notes can help you visualize your work before you begin writing. This can involve brainstorming a structure for your piece, taking notes on your subject and source material, or just writing down all your ideas in one place where you can see them.
Design your outline however feels the most comfortable to you; some people may prefer bullet points in a word document, while others may like drawing diagrams on paper. The point is to get your ideas flowing and to start forming a shape you can build off of when it’s time to start writing. Include as much or as little detail as you want, although more detail is usually more helpful. You can even write down whole phrases or sentences if you think of them as you’re brainstorming, and then add them into the draft later.
Step Two: Write anything.
The biggest hurdle of your first draft is probably going to be the blank page. It can be daunting to look at a space without any words in it, but the easiest way to get over this hesitation is to write absolutely anything. You don’t have to start at the beginning; try starting with the section you know the most about or the section you want to write the most. You can start with any snippets you wrote down in your outline, or pull from other parts of your notes.
Getting any words at all on the page will take away the big blank question mark and help you get into the groove of writing. Once you have parts of your draft written and can see your piece coming together, you’ll feel more confident about filling in the rest of the empty space. You can use this technique for any part of your paper, not just the beginning. If you’re starting a difficult chapter or paragraph, try just starting anywhere and build outward, rather than agonizing over finding the perfect start.
Step Three: Don’t wait for inspiration.
This step applies to any piece of writing but especially creative pieces: never wait to write until you “feel like” writing. Inspiration is not reliable, and if you wait on it you’ll find yourself going long stretches of time without writing at all. If you’re writing an assignment with a due date, waiting until you feel inspired will probably result in rushing to meet a deadline at the last minute. You’re not going to make any progress by hoping you’ll find the perfect moment or mood to write.
Instead, set yourself a schedule. Decide on a time every day, or every other day, or as frequently as you want, and sit down at that time and write. Set up a goal for your writing, and push yourself to reach it during every session – though be careful to keep your goals reasonable. Sometimes you’ll get on a roll and write much more than you expected, and sometimes you’ll struggle to meet your bare minimum, but either way you’ll have written. Plan out your writing time so you can go somewhere like an office space or a library; don’t sit in your bedroom or a cafe where you’re more likely to get distracted. Make sure you bring water and even a snack so that you’re comfortable and well-fueled while you write, and you’ll find it’s easier to stay on track. Sticking to your writing schedule will help you knock out your first draft much more quickly.
Step Four: Let yourself write things you don’t like.
When you’re writing, it’s easy to get caught up in the feeling that everything you write has to be exactly right the first time. You may find yourself stuck because you can’t think of the perfect way to phrase your thoughts, and you stare at the page wasting valuable time while you search for it. In these situations, it’s much better to let yourself write something you don’t think is very good and come back later to fix it. After all, your first draft will probably get read over and revised multiple times before you’re finished with it.
Getting over that hurdle of one phrase or sentence will let you move on and cover more ground. Having the sentence there is more important than having the sentence perfect. Once you have the thought on the page, it will be easier to work with it and change it, and you may even find after coming back to it that it works better than you expected.
Step Five: Take a break if you’re really stuck.
Sometimes, you’re just so stumped that you can’t do anything. This can be especially frustrating if you’re at the very end of your draft and you’re almost done, but it can happen at any time and hold up your writing process. When this happens, you may just need to take a break. Taking a break doesn’t mean slacking off and forgetting about your paper, though; you should spend your time in a way that’s productive. This can happen in a variety of ways that will keep you on track.
One solution is to move on to another section. Leave a note where you’re stuck so you don’t forget and then write another part of the draft. You can always come back later, and filling out more of the draft may help you develop ideas. If you’re stuck on the whole draft or on the very last part, put your writing session on pause and walk away for a while. The best thing to do is go outside or get some exercise, as this will stimulate and refresh your brain. You can also listen to your favorite music or read a book to help change your mindset and give you a new perspective. Make sure to set a timer so that you know when to go back to your writing. If you still can’t come up with anything, it’s okay to walk away for a day or two and come back with a completely fresh mind.
The first draft is the toughest part of a piece because you’re creating something new from scratch. If you make it through, congratulations! It’s no small feat to come up with something that’s entirely your own. You’re not done yet, but you’ve conquered the biggest hurdle and can finally move forward. Good luck!