It’s time for that first draft. You’ve gone through the “pre-writing” process. It’s time to start writing. And what do you do? You sit and stare at the blank screen, not sure where to start. Or you rewrite the first sentence a million times. Or you find a dozen other arbitrary things to do instead. Yes, I’ve been there. So how do we tackle the first draft?
Obviously, we start writing! We get our “butt in the chair” and we get it done! Turn on our PC (or pick up our pens) and begin the physical act of writing. Now while that sounds like trite advice, it isn’t. (It’s the reason you’ve wasted your time doing some of the things mentioned in the first paragraph.)
One of the first hurdles we have to overcome is ourselves. We have to get past the fear of failure. Past the procrastination. Past wanting to do anything except write. It’s often said that starting something is the scariest part – and it is. Ask yourself: what’s the simplest part of the project I can do right now? And that’s where you start.
Here are some additional tips to hopefully help you scale that mountain:
TELL THE STORY
The first draft is all about telling the story. So tell it – as fast as you can! The more you write, the more motivated you’ll be.
For “plot-sters”, this is where your outline is especially helpful. It is your roadmap, your path to success. Use it as such. When you find yourself stuck on where to go next, consult that map and move right along.
For “pant-sters”, write the section that is uppermost on your mind. When you finish that part, move onto the next. Since things are rarely sequential for pant-sters, I recommend a program like Scrivener to help you arrange the sections more easily when you finish your first draft.
DON’T AIM FOR PERFECTION
Bear this in mind as an overriding thought: First drafts are meant to be messy. They are not meant to be a work of art. They are there to get your idea onto paper in a rough format.
One of the slogans associated with Facebook basically says, “Done is better than perfect.” Take that to heart. If you spend endless hours on your very first sentence, it’s going to take a long, long, long . . . long time to finish your book.
Instead of agonizing over where or how to start, start with whichever part of the book you’re most excited about. Get that first sentence down on paper – and then keep going. Don’t tweak and fiddle with it. That’s what the successive drafts are for.
Just focus on getting those words down. If you’re a perfectionist, think of it like this: you can’t edit what you haven’t written. Which brings us to the next point.
DON’T EDIT WHILE YOU WRITE
This is way more difficult than it sounds. But avoid the temptation to find a better word or replace a sentence or review the paragraph you just wrote to make sure you covered all the points. This endless going back over and over again just delays you completing your first draft – if you even get to finishing!
Editing is a separate process, so keep it separate. In fact, it uses a different part of your brain. So, if you really want to be efficient, keep your writing and editing processes distinct. Focusing on only either writing or editing will also help you perform each task better. Trying to do both simultaneously is like mythical premise of multi-tasking – you’ll spin your wheels and end up not going very far.
SET A TIMER
While some might say that setting a timer is a deterrent to being creative, I beg to differ. There’s something about “being under the gun” that fires my creativity to the extent that my fingers have difficulty keeping up with what the words and ideas that are trying to claw their way out!
Remember to set your timer for an easily achievable goal – one minute isn’t out of the question! The idea is to start that timer and as soon as you do, to start writing and DO NOTHING ELSE until that timer beeps. That means no checking social media, no answering calls, no getting coffee or snacks, no playing with the cat!
Another advantage of having a timer is that if you get on a roll, you don’t have to subconsciously worry about when you need to start the other tasks in your day. Your timer is your indicator that this is your writing time, so use it to do exactly that. The assurance of that timer frees your mind to be as creative as it wants to be – without restriction!
DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
We get sidetracked by hiccups. It may not seem like it, but these eat up your time. What are hiccups? Examples include which punctuation mark to use, checking whether your character already mentioned the key point you were about to make or determining if the way a gadget just worked was the same as the first time you wrote it.
If you aren’t sure of issues related to voice, plot, dialogue or grammar, just make your best guess and carry on! Because I know my mind will “worry” about these sections, I like to highlight them to remind me to pay closer attention to them when editing. But I don’t waste the time figuring them out when I’m writing them the first time.
Here’s another hint if you’re worried you won’t remember why you highlighted something: choose specific colors that will help you remember the reason for paying closer attention. For example, yellow for context, blue to check person is in character, green for recurring actions, etc.
One last point – I know I’m not supposed to edit while writing, but the one thing I can’t tolerate is spelling mistakes. For those, I correct them immediately. Whether you choose to do the same is up to you!
ALLOW YOURSELF TO ROAM
While it may seem counter-productive to allow yourself to explore other ideas that come up when you’re writing, believe me, your first draft is the time to do it. Your mind is in freefall here, so why rein it in? Let your mind roam, recording its ramblings. You never know what interesting twists you can add to your tale with that detour!
The only caution I have on this point is to not lose track of your main story/objective. It can be an easy thing to lose yourself down the rabbit-hole. To prevent this, when your writing time for the day is FINISHED, take a moment to reflect on whether this part needs to be expanded upon, left as is or deleted. Then tackle this first in your next writing session.
As often happens, the exact word you want won’t come to you when you need it! Don’t let this stop the train. Use a placeholder to mark the spot and move on.
Placeholders should be easy to find when using a “find and replace” function. Things like “TK” (used by journalists) or “+++” or a group of letters or numbers that are not easily grouped together in a word, all work.
Just keep it short and add a note for yourself, like “+++ add word here for happy”. I recommend only correcting these when you are in an editing session. If you feel you have to correct them before you forget what you meant to do with them, budget a little time at the end of your writing session to do so.
There you have it. Now you have no (or fewer) excuses for not writing. Or at least starting. You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you start. So get going! I’m waiting for your book.