5 Tips on Writing First Drafts

Having just completed the first draft of my second novel, I can attest to the fact that writing a first draft is still a lot better than oral surgery, but a good measure worse than folding laundry or even cleaning the bathrooms (which, full disclosure, my husband does). First drafts require starting from nothing and creating something only slightly better than nothing. At least, that’s how my first drafts feel to me. The good news? Now I have something to work with. Fresh from the trenches, here are a few tips on writing the first draft of your novel.

GIVEAWAY: Kathy is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Edwina won.)


Kathy-Czepiel-author-writer        a-violet-season-novel

Guest column by Kathy Leonard Czepiel, author of A VIOLET SEASON
(Simon & Schuster), named one of the best books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews.
She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National
Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in Cimarron
Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, Brain Child, and elsewhere.
Czepiel teaches writing at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she
lives with her husband and two daughters. Learn more about Czepiel
and her work at her website.



1. Make an outline. Then be willing to leave it behind. Writing an outline forces me to think through some big questions before I begin. But I follow it the way I travel with my husband sans kids: “Hey, Honey, look at this weird little mountain on the map. Wanna check it out?” And pretty soon the story has taken a turn. Sometimes the side trip changes everything, and I revise my outline. Sometimes it’s a dead end. Then I have my outline to get me back on track.

(Writer’s Digest asked literary agents for their best pieces of advice. Here are their responses.)

2. Think of your first draft as the clay, not the sculpture. Imagine that what you are doing is digging up clay, just a hunk of stuff from which you’ll create something later. Much of it will be messy and unrefined, but that’s not your problem now. Your job is simply to get from the beginning to the end. Keep digging! When it’s time to write a second draft, you will have your raw material.

3. Every time you think about how pedestrian and clumsy and downright awful your first draft is, remind yourself that no one else has to read it. I don’t show my first draft to anyone. I already know it needs a lot more work, and I even know what some of that work will be, so asking someone else to read it would be pointless (and embarrassing). If you don’t know what your first draft needs, then by all means, ask for help. But if you decide not to show it to anyone, it may be best not to tell anyone about it either. Otherwise, your well-meaning friends will keep asking you how it’s going, and you will have to distract them with beer or chocolate or witty conversation on another topic (my personal favorite).

4. Don’t let a lack of research slow you down. I write historical fiction, so I do a lot of research, but I only do a little bit to get started. When I began drafting my debut novel, A Violet Season, I needed to know that violets were grown in the Hudson Valley beginning in the early 1890s, and that wet nurses had become somewhat obsolete by the turn of the century, when infant formula was invented. As for the details—how to pick violets, how much wet nurses were paid—in my first draft, I made them up! If I’d been concerned about research too soon, all those trips to the library (and the violet farm, and the Lower East Side of New York City, and so on) might have prevented me from ever finishing that first draft. Instead, I use CAPS in my first drafts to indicate where details need to be filled in later.

(Read author interviews with debut novelists.)

5. Set a deadline. A Violet Season was written over four summers—each summer, another draft. This was a crazy schedule, I know, but in some ways it was perfect. There was a clear end to the summers (sadly), and to my drafts. If you don’t have a deadline, you run the risk of one draft spilling into the next, and you may never feel a sense of closure or accomplishment. This is really important in a business in which we often work alone and without recognition. When you finish your draft, celebrate! Then start the next one.

GIVEAWAY: Kathy is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Edwina won.)


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79 thoughts on “5 Tips on Writing First Drafts

  1. slo_matt

    Just stumbled onto this article but I wanted to drop a note because it was helpful. I’m currently outlining a novel and the chasm between that and a finished first draft seems pretty wide. That being said, the idea of this just being “digging up clay” and not sculpting a finished work is a comforting one. I’ll try to keep it in mind.


  2. sefmac20

    Thank you!! After months of outlining, yesterday I finally committed to starting my first draft. After writing a chapter and a half, my first thought – “This doesn’t sound like published YA fiction.” Second thought – “I don’t think I can do this.” Your advice was the kick in the pants I needed. Thank you for taking something huge and boiling it down to something as simple as unmolded clay.

  3. HPSeeker

    Getting back into writing my novel series has been a loooooong time coming. I LOVE when information is so timely, seeing as my delving deep into the re-plotting and more fleshing out of characters is just around the next bend! I have a lot of research I need to do beforehand, in order to get the plotting right, BUT—CAPITALIZING the points that can wait ’til later is an easy-to-execute, easy-to-spot way of leaving them by the side of the road to gather up later, rather than allowing them to be weighty baggage slowing us down. Wonderful stuff, Kathy! Thank you and good luck with the success of your debut novel. How exciting! I hope to be a lucky reader 😀

  4. JustEmbers

    You hit the nail on the head with my biggest stumbling blocks in writing. I research everything to death (and do much less writing because of it), and I don’t just push through my first draft. I revise, and revise, and revise, and therefore it takes an eternity to finish a first draft… because there isn’t one. I don’t stop revising until I’ve got a final first paragraph, then I begin the next paragraph and do the same.

  5. carriewriter

    Excellent tips, particularly regarding not sharing your first draft. I think many writers make that mistake, and end up feeling discouraged and even misunderstood. I also agree that an outline is very important in providing a road map for your novel, even if you stray from it or take liberties.

  6. lgilb26862

    This was a great article. I have a tough time getting past the first draft. Your tips are helpful to every draft but especially when trying to start on the second draft. It is important to remember that the first draft is not golden. Cut with impunity.

  7. Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

    I especially appreciate the metaphor of the “clay” versus the “sculpture” for the first draft. I just launched my debut novel and while I’m happy with the end product, the process was arduous and one I swear I won’t repeat. I want to write the first draft faster and with less of my tendency toward perfectionism. I tweaked each chapter along the way, writing and rewriting each one before the draft was complete. This made for my “perfecting” content that would ultimately be cut all together! Jeesh, a lot of effort was expelled unnecessarily. This time, I write the first draft faster, and resist editing until I’ve got draft 1 completed.

  8. klzeep

    It’s great to see how many people are out there throwing their own clay on the wheel, to take the metaphor farther. I’m so glad this post has been helpful. And now, off to write!

  9. KokoVoyage

    Thank you for the article.

    I been “sitting” on my very quickly started novel for some time, reading informative articles and following tutorials to keep on learning how to craft my skills. As I didn`t finish any school with Journalism Degree or at this matter anything to do with writing. Its crucial to learn, what makes a good story, how to represent it right and mostly how to “translate” my own images and ideas to the world.
    For all I know there is a lots of inspiration and motivation necessary to be best of yourself!
    As a toddler I roam between professionals and amateurs,I enjoy the journey of experiences and hardship.
    Thank you again and Good luck!

  10. jcmeckes

    Thanks for the article!

    I’m 82,000 words into a first draft! I think I’ll finish in less than weeks. That’s my deadline… Being able to let go of the outline was important (especially as my characters came alive). It’s also nice to hear that I’m working with clay. It’s true, I have a good deal of shaping to do as I begin the revision process.

  11. CK Crouch

    I love participating in NaNoWriMo but I seem to have lots of story left at the end of the month. I’m trying tor fewer distractions and more focus on the writing. I no longer have the “day job” but games and family tend to distract me. 🙂 I’m learning to avoid the games until the writing it complete. Family is a little bit harder lol.

  12. MEPF

    I’ve been absolutely bogged down with the need for more research but not really wanting to do it. Your idea of filling in “made up facts” is brilliant. I already feel my fingertips tingling, ready to start creating the story again. Thank you (for permission).

  13. Linda McMann

    Thanks for the guidelines, Kathy. I amassed three notebooks full of information as I wrote my first novel, all containing research on various topics. It took lots of time and I think my writing momentum suffered because of it. I’ve started novel #2 without much research at all and it seems to be flowing better. This time around I highlight areas in blue that I need to revisit/research. Good information. thanks!

  14. lme1216

    Thanks for the tips! I never thought of setting a deadline for the first draft. I have been thinking too far ahead, and the goal of finished first draft is within my grasp. Thanks for energizing me. Congratulations on your book – it sounds like a story my daughter and I would love to read.

  15. jdmstudios

    Oh my gosh…so the first draft is supposed to be bad? Good, I’m in luck! I’ll keep plugging away 🙂 And I spend way too much time doing research. It really helps to know that it’s okay to fill in the blanks later. Thanks for the great tips!

  16. pollie

    Thanks for the tips. I’m participating in a writing “binge” this weekend and my goal is to get finished this dreaded first draft. Your tips should help me do it!


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