How to Write Faster First Drafts
by Daniel Parsons
As writers, we live in social media bubbles. Our feeds and favourite podcasts are flooded with other authors who talk about making six-figure writing incomes and publish multiple books a year. We hear about their massive annual wordcount targets and see them tackle gruelling deadlines which, of course, they hit every time. As a result, it can sometimes seem like everyone in the industry is a writing machine.
In reality, however, those high-profile writers are outliers. They just get more exposure because their success is exciting, making it seem as though they are representative of everyone. By comparison, most working authors have a slower writing process. Many only release a new book every 12 months. Many more grapple with stories for years, never reaching the end.
If this frustrating experience resembles your process then you might want to learn how to write faster first drafts. That’s because of two simple truths:
a) Finishing a book gets easier once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do it once.
b) Editing a finished story is easier than working and reworking one that doesn’t have an end
The manuscript doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be complete. Doing so will make it easier to visualise your published book and help you find the motivation to push through the final edits in record time. In this blog post, we plan to show you how.
OUTLINE WITH STORY BEATS
While there are plenty of writers who say they need to write into the dark to keep themselves engaged in their plot, there are many others who deem outlining integral to their writing process. If you find that your stories run out of fuel just as the tension starts building, writing story beats might be your answer.
A story beat is an idea founded by scriptwriters in Hollywood. Essentially, it’s a short, written summary of a scene, distilled into a few sentences. As authors, we can apply the same approach to books, summarising each chapter as a single sentence or paragraph. What this does is ensure that you have a complete story before you start writing. Therefore, you always know where your plot is headed and are less likely to write yourself into a corner you can’t escape.
Aside from that, beats also help you to keep track of your plot and characters, meaning that you can start each new writing session without wasting too much time staring at a blank page. In this scenario, you don’t need to remember every detail of a character’s journey, as you would without beats. You simply have to consider your upcoming scene, already knowing roughly how it will begin and end. This, I’m sure you would agree, is a far less daunting task.
LOWER YOUR STANDARDS
A common challenge for inexperienced writers is that they compare their opening chapters with those of their all-time favourite books. They forget that those novels have been fed through multiple editors and have undergone a significant transformation from first draft to final product. Yet they strive to write equally polished prose without editing and become paralyzed when they fail to match their unrealistic standards.
To overcome this struggle, you must first accept that your initial draft won’t be a work of genius. Your book will undergo a series of evolutionary steps. Fortunately, you’re not alone. Just like you, all authors – even the greats – write terrible first drafts. They just get better and require lighter edits as they develop their authorial voice over several books.
When it comes to your book, characters will be removed, plot holes filled, beginnings snipped and endings changed. The best attitude you can take is not allowing yourself to get bogged down in the details on the initial pass. Rather, you should keep pushing forward with your story. If anything needs to be changed, make a note and change it after you’ve reached the end. That way, you won’t get tangled in an incomplete plot and will continue to make progress.
MAKE WRITING A HABIT
Oftentimes, thinking about all of the writing you should be doing is a bigger mental struggle than the act of writing itself. Indeed, many writers procrastinate for days, weeks or even months doing everything but write, all while stressing over their lack of progress. Yet, when they start, they become engrossed and quickly churn out several thousand words. If this sounds like you, it’s not a lack of inspiration that holds you back; it’s your inability to self-motivate.
If you want to write faster first drafts then motivating yourself to write every day is vital. It will save you time finding your train of thought whenever you return to your story. Plus, seeing consistent progress will keep you motivated and will compound your ability to produce on a regular basis. The benefits are multi-faceted!
So how do you make writing a habit? One way is to block out a consistent writing window in your schedule and only focus on your book during that time. This can be early in the morning or late at night – whatever works best for you! To cement your writing habit, you could even attach it to an existing one like making breakfast. Boot up your laptop for an hour of writing every day while brewing your coffee and you will soon see it become a reflex.
Just remember, habits take time to develop. Like any muscle, you brain needs to adapt to new actions before it finds them easy. So persevere in the knowledge that this will get easier.
QUANTIFY AND TRACK YOUR GOALS
It’s easier to see how closely you’re working to your schedule and – more importantly – if you’re falling behind, if you quantify your goals. For example, many new writers spend whole days reworking scenes without seeing any noticeable progress. They put in a lot of effort but can’t see a result because they can’t easily identify what they’ve done.
Thankfully, you can quantify your progress regardless of what stage you are at with your manuscript, and doing so will make your work far easier to measure.
• If you are outlining, you could outline a certain number of chapters in a scheduled writing block.
• If you’re on the first draft, then your goal might be to write 1,000 new words. You can rewrite passages if you want but only after you’ve met your minimum quota.
• While editing, you could list the problems you’ve uncovered with your plot and aim to check off a certain number of tweaks per day from your to-do list.
Regardless of how you decide to quantify your goals, doing so will ensure that you make continuous progress and, therefore, write faster first drafts. The key to making this process effective is to plan ahead and set achievable chunks you need to complete. For example, if you have 20 days to edit 40 chapters, then you will know that you need to stick to editing two chapters a day. Anything less will mean having to increase your workload later to make up for the missed work so it’s better to stay on track. Only then will you consistently hit your deadlines.
FOCUS ON ONE BOOK
Writing a book seems to summon a universally recognised emotional pattern. First there is a euphoric beginning where the words come easy. Next comes a “difficult middle section” where the plot gets harder to wrangle and you lose your earlier enthusiasm. Then the process ends with a reignited passion and a race to the finish line.
When you find yourself caught in the difficult middle and are struggling with a tangled plot, it’s easy to become disenchanted, tempted to start a fresh new project. At times like this, though, remaining focused is what separates the professionals from the amateurs. Give into temptation now and you waste weeks or months of work. Not only that but it inevitably means leaving yourself in the same predicament further down the line when you get bored of this new book too. Do this a few times and suddenly it becomes a bad habit. A cycle of unfinished projects and gradually lowering mental standards.
Thankfully, awareness is the best way to overcome this problem. Focusing on one book and seeing it through to publication will help you break the cycle and form a new habit, one in which you’ll write faster first drafts and complete several books a year.
Follow the suggestions in this blog post and you will speed up your writing process. As the commercial fiction author Jodi Picoult, who has written 25+ novels and sold over 40 million copies once said, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” With that in mind, strive to write a faster first draft and give yourself something to edit.
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