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, 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.



Writing Resolutions

Making Thoughtful Writing Resolutions

It’s a new year, and for many that means it’s time to make writing resolutions.

writing resolutions

Those among us who write know that in year’s past we’ve pronounced each January 1, “This year I will write more!” This year, however, I am resolving and encouraging you, dear writer, to write not more but better .

Orwell had the write idea, we can ask ourselves questions to become better writers. After all, what is the point of writing more, if we do no more than sling more words on the page? In honor of Orwell, New Year’s resolutions, and as a reminder to myself as a writer, I offer four questions to better writing in 2016.

Am I listening to the sound of my writing? Language is a music of its own. I share this with my writing students repeatedly: Listen to your writing. Read it aloud. Listen to the music of your words, how your sentences rise and fall, where you need an extra word, where fewer words sounds better. Listen for awkward construction, words clanging against one another, disturbing the flow.

Have I created the greatest tensile strength? In The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, Norman Mailer, in an interview with Larry Shainberg, defines what he calls “tensile strength”: “You can’t change a single word.” This is where I see clients and writer friends growing the most. When they can thoughtful examine the necessity of each word in a sentence, they increase tensile strength. To me, the best growth is at the sentence level, word by word.

Have I cared enough to self-edit? The tendency I see, and have experienced myself, is that self-editing has gone out the window with such movements as NaNoWriMo. The push to rack up thousands of words in a day, churning out a book in a month has seemingly left many writers with the false belief that self-editing is the enemy of the writer. How many times in workshops have I heard, “Just get down the first draft! Don’t edit yourself!” Sadly, I’ve seen in the past decade an ever-increasing emphasis on quantity over quality. I read on social media sites such exclamations as “I wrote 5K words today!” and “30K words this week!” Perhaps it’s the cynic in me that thinks, Were any of them good? OK, dear writer, that may be harsh, but let’s resolve to self-edit with as much passion as we resolve to write. Perhaps 2016 will be the year of NaSEMo (National Self-Editing Month). Maybe February? It’s short. (Note: After stopping to look this up, it appears there is a NaNoEdMo in March.) I’ll be sure to participate.

Do my writing choices make sense? One thing I believe most about writing is that writing is about choices. The right metaphor, right POV, right structure. Yes, genres have certain tropes, but do I need them. I love Tim Gunn on Project Runway because he’s always encouraging Project designers to be thoughtful about their choices, in essence to edit. An overdesigned look is a “hot mess express” as a young designer said on the latest season of Project Runway Junior. In 2016, don’t let your writing be a hot mess express. Question your writing choices.

In 2016, I wish the best writing for you, dear writer. I plan to do both: more writing and better writing. Please post links to your writing in the comments section. I’d love to read your work and your thoughts on writing better in the new year. What are your writing resolutions?

Writing Scams and Schemes

If you’ve been writing for any significant amount of time, you know that there’s no shortage of writing scams and schemes out there waiting to trap and trick writers. My favorite place to keep up on what to watch out for and how to navigate the Internet when it comes to writing and the shadier side of the publishing industry is Writer Beware. The good folks at Writer Beware have put together a list of the best of Writer Beware for 2014. It’s definitely my first “must read” of 2015. Thanks, Writer Beware, for keeping all of us writers safe and updated.

Check it out!

2014 in Review: The Best of Writer Beware 


5 Truths Most Editors Won’t Tell You (But I Will)

You should know these five truths when working with an editor.

1. Lowball rates often equals low-quality service. If a freelance editor is quoting you an unbelievable rate (such as a penny a word), it’s often because they perform quick, single passes over your manuscript, sometimes using only editing software. Be sure you ask how many passes your editor will take and if they practice actual eyes-on-the-page editing. Don’t settle for less than two full rounds of copyediting.

2. The company you pay to edit your work may hire inexperienced freelancers to perform the work but charge you exorbitant fees. Many “editing mills” and self-publishing houses hire freelancers willing to work for lower-than-average prices. Ask who will be editing your work and try to work directly with this person, setting the fee for services directly with the editor. Avoiding the middleman and working one-on-one with a professional freelance writer or editor will help ensure that you’re getting high-quality services at a reasonable rate.

3. Service fees can vary greatly among editors. Many professional freelance editors set their rates according to the current industry standard. A good site to check current rates is the Editorial Freelancers Association website: The EFA’s rate chart helps you negotiate a fair rate for you and your editor. Many professional freelance writers and editors are happy to work with you on rates or set up a payment schedule. Don’t hesitate to have your editor explain how he or she has determined your service costs. If you have multiple projects planned or have worked with the editor before, you may be able to negotiate a lower, multiproject rate.

4. Having a written contract protects both the author and the editor. Many editors will have a contract. If one is not provided before an initial payment or deposit, ask that the editor create one. The contract should be tailored for your project specifications and contain a payment schedule, arbitration section, and cancellation clause. Short-term editing or small projects may not necessitate a contract, but always require one for long-term or large-scale projects such as a full-length book edit.

5. You, the author, have final say-so. A good professional editor or writer wants his or her client to be satisfied and return for future collaborations. Don’t tolerate an editor who does not show respect toward your ideas, opinions, or writing voice. Working on a large-scale project is a collaboration, even at the level of basic copyediting. The partnership between you and your editor should be mutually respectful and supportive. Try to choose an editor who is enthusiastic about your writing project and shows a genuine interest. Remember, the editor works for you, but, ultimately, you both work for your reader.


What plot depends upon

Speaking with youth writers this week about plot. Josip Novakovich writes in FICTION WRITER’S WORKSHOP, “To summarize (at the risk of oversimplifying): Plot depends on passions—on how characters struggle to fulfill them.”

I’m dumbfounded sometimes about the inordinate amount of energy spent on methods for plotting and creating “original” plots. I sigh when I hear about beginning writers paying big bucks for workshops that promise to reveal the secret for plotting the next big Hollywood blockbuster. I yearn for more, or at least as much, concentration on character as on plot. Indeed, the main focus of my discussion will be to get the young writers to consider the importance of character building.

Wind your characters up, infuse them with life, bless upon them compelling passions and wants, then place them into an interesting setting. If those initial efforts go well, they will do the job of plotting for you. They will propel themselves along to their inevitable end. 


Where is your reader?

Where is the reader in your text? Do you have a narrator or a narratee? David Lodge, in The Art of Fiction, explains “the narratee is any evocation of, or surrogate for, the reader of a novel within the text itself.” Does your narrator stand in for your reader? Does he or she or it draw the reader into the world you’ve created? Or do you keep your reader at arm’s distance, talking at them not to them, holding them back instead of holding their hand? Where is the reader in your text?


On the Ideal Conditions for Writing

I think it is probably better to be awake, sober, and drug-free. I suspect those three conditions are probably helpful. But beyond that, I just have to feel like writing. I’m not one of these people who goes to the desk every single day and writes. I wait until my head gets filled with stuff and I have to get it out of my head.

I used to drink occasionally and take a little grass now and again back when I was real young. And I thought that I could write an awful lot better if I did. But it wasn’t very good. It seemed wonderful at the time. Marvelous. I’d look at it the next day and say, “What the hell was that all about?”   from Edward Albee’s “On Playwriting” inThe Best Writing on Writing(Story Press, 1994).

Personally, I’ve tried writing many ways: sober, drunk, joyful, depressed, with much time on my hands, with tight deadlines (mostly self-imposed and often missed or tossed aside), full of ideas, utterly depleted and blocked. What works for me in the end is the condition of willingness. I can write well when I’m willing to put in the time, effort, and determination. I do not believe in ”ideal conditions.” I do not believe in “ideal” anything. I trust in the power of words: spoken and unspoken, written and unwritten.

I hate sports metaphors (mostly because I suck at sports), but I can’t play if I don’t show up to the game. I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to win, by whatever my definition of “winning” is in the moment, but mostly I want to play. Play with words. Play with life. Create. Live. In ideal conditions or not.  


‘The Paris Review’ To Launch An App – AppNewser

‘The Paris Review’ To Launch An App – AppNewser


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