4 Tips for Stronger First Drafts

You can write stronger first drafts.


Attend a few writers groups and you’re bound to hear the classic question about writing first drafts: Are you a plotter or a pantser? I’ve heard this question so many times I’ve questioned whether Merriam-Webster has officially inducted pantser into its iconic word tome. (I stopped writing to check, and no, it has not.) Online, however, collinsdictionary.com defines pantser, “In the writing world someone who prefers to write by the seat of their pants without any forethought or planning.”

Many writers who’ve tried the pantser method have found themselves left with a muddled, confusing, disjointed mess in the end. Often, they move straight onto new projects. Revising such an unworkable manuscript feels too daunting. It’s easier, they feel, to chunk it and start over.

If this has been your experience, you may want to step away from the pantser writing method. Often, this style of writer is called a plotter. I prefer, however, the term planner. Why be a planner instead of a plotter? Plotters, as the term implies, can get hung up thinking in terms of “plotting” out each event, while other elements such as character, setting, cause-and-effect go ignored. Planners, however, consider all aspects of a story or subject. They go deep, long before the first word is penned.

To practice your planning skills, consider these 4 tips for a stronger first draft:

1. Develop your book premise. A clear, focused, engaging book premise takes time. Don’t rush. When you’re in the early stages of developing your book’s premise take lots of notes, dive into sources, explore your topic. It may be tempting to rush into banging out a first chapter . . . or more, maybe even a complete manuscript. A manuscript built on a weak premise can easily become a waste of time.

2. Adopt a structured plan for chapter and scene development from beginning to end. You’ll want your plan to remain flexible enough to allow for content or storyline changes as the manuscript evolves. If you can’t envision a clear progression or, most important, the ending, then you really don’t know where you want to go. Take the time to plan a here-to-there map of your manuscript.

3. Be willing to trash a scene or chapter section if it’s not working. Some writers find it hard to cut material later, especially once a draft is finished. If the scene or section feels forced or unfocused, leave it for a while. If you come back to it and find it’s still not working, maybe it doesn’t belong. Don’t let either your plan or your pride get in your way.

4. Start each writing session by editing the prior session’s pages. This tip is likely the most controversial. I’ve heard a thousand times just to write without editing. Write through the first draft. Get it all out. Dump the words on the page. Poppycock. Everyone finds their own best method, but many who edit along the way discover they have a more focused first draft at the end. It’s worth the extra time and energy.

Lisa Cron in Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel writes on the myths of pantsing and of the “shitty first draft.” She suggests that pantsing is attractive to writers simply because our brains are wired to take the easiest route. Planning, I propose, is harder than setting down with a half-baked premise and banging out page after page. But is it most effective? Does it produce the best first drafts? If it did, I don’t think we’d have the popular myth that all first drafts are “shitty.”

Cron also does a wonderful job of examining the myth of plotting. I’ll admit that she broke my heart a bit when she railed against the myth of external story structures, such as the three-act structure. I couldn’t agree more with her, though, that relying on either pansting or plotting works more against good storytelling than for it. I think the same argument could be made for writing nonfiction. Go in with a plan. Cron’s story-building method is a workable, thoughtful plan for writing fiction.