Editors Blog

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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77 thoughts on “5 Tips on Writing First Drafts

  1. 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.

  2. 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 :D

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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).

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

  15. 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!

  16. cvenckus

    Thank you for the advice. I especially like #1. Being a Software Engineer by day I’m all for using logic and outlining my stories, but when the story and characters guide me its all the better. However, as you said, the other path sometimes leads to a dead end too. That’s okay.

    Congrats on your novel!

  17. pollie

    Thanks for the tips. I’m participating in a writing “binge” this weekend and my goal is to get this dreaded first draft completed. Your tips will help me along.

  18. J M Orise

    Your writing suggestions are great. I am in the middle of outlining a new YA MS and have revised several times. When painting (I’m also an artist), biking, walking or waiting for the sandman, I shuffle my characters around in my head. My last completed YA MS is still in re-draft mode. Hopefully this will be the last.

  19. dymphna st james

    Your comments are helpful. By the end of the month I will have completed 25,000 words (100 pages) of my first draft of my novel. My goal is 50,000 words complete by the end of the summer. My first draft is my canvas that is primed then I can begin painting with words and filling in all the details.

  20. SuperSarah111

    As someone who likes to consider herself a potter, I appreciate the comparison to clay! :-) Also, I like the reminder to not focus too much on details that would need a lot of research in the first draft. Get the story down and then fix it later so you don’t get so caught up in research that you run out of time to write the story! Good advice–thanks!

  21. cberry903

    I loved this article. It really reasonated with me. You must be a teacher, as am. Hence the writing summers. And as I am headed into my fourth summer of revision on my first mystery, I take encouragement that it is possible. Congratulations! I’m about to Tweet about it

  22. fishesandirt

    Fun article with good advice. I’m a big fan of number 4. I always get sidetracked by research and it can be so hard to find my way back to my story.

  23. Jess Molly

    The funny thing is, I never considered how useful an outline could be until I wrote a synopsis to submit to a publisher. At that point, I wondered why I had discounted their value as they’re so very useful for straightening out the knots in one’s head. Then again, I do tend to do things backwards: the publisher I want approached me. LOL

  24. Catherine Gurganus

    Thanks, Kathy for the tips! I’m in the throes of making notes and researching for my novel, wondering when I’m going to actually start writing. I think it’s time to just write the outline and get going.

  25. Becky

    Thank you, Kathy for the great tips and the giveaway; a nice bonus. I am a debut author and working on my first novel. I read all the tips that I can. I relate to all of them, except for the first one. I have been researching my book since June, without writing a word. I was trying to come up with an outline. I have a few notebooks with longhand notes. When it comes to trying to outline, I freeze. I don’t know the whole story yet, who the antagonist is going to be (although I have a good idea, but it could change), or the middle or ending. I have a start. So I decided to write to see if that could propel me forward. It did! I discovered two new secondary characters that are important to the story, that I hadn’t even thought of. Having not done this before, it does make me wonder if I am painting myself into a corner without an outline. I guess that would be my question: Is it always vital to have an outline? Do you need to know the entire story before you start writing, or can you develop it as you write? I really appreciate your advice. Your book looks intriguing.

    1. klzeep

      Hi, Becky. I’m so glad you were able to get started! I don’t think anything is vital. You have to figure out your own way of doing things. This is just mine, so I offer it up for you to try. Good luck!

  26. Mischief-and-Quills

    Thank you very much for your advice! Ironically, I just sat down to type up a first draft to have something solid. I happened to check my email, and…voila! An email about writing a first draft! PERFECT timing.
    I often find that I’m too hard on myself when it comes to writing (we writers are our most critical critics), but your suggestion on capitalizing ideas to research is definitely helpful. I shall try it out! Your analogies were wonderful as well; I enjoyed imagining writing as clay.
    So, I just want to say thanks, again. You helped me out a lot!

  27. Nicnac63

    Perfect timing! Thank you. I’ve spent eons rewriting a chapter…perfecting a scene, plotting, etc. What I really need to do is just get the first draft out of the way, so I can “mold the clay.” My outline is rough (which I’ve come to realize is perfect–seeing it’s my first draft) and I’m treading on to finding my way.

    A Violet Season is an intriguing title and the cover is lovely. I’d love to win this book. The reviews on Amazon have me hooked!

  28. claraharris

    Setting a deadline for each draft – I love that idea! As a playwright, I sometimes have an imposed deadline of a production that ends the process of editing at a certain stage, but it is also easy to sit and re-work and re-work and re-work until I feel like I’ve fallen into a black hole of re-writing a single play when there is no production looming.

    I run into a similar problem with research, that I could research it to death and never finish the first draft, but I use footnotes. I’ll insert a standard footnote that says something along the lines of, “Research this, or make it generally less lame.” Since the characters’ names are in caps, this makes finding those spots easier.

  29. sylviashipp

    Thank you so much for writing this thought-provoking article. You articulate so well what I think many writers go through while writing their first drafts, but are not fully cognizant. I’ve endured all five points you mentioned. I really appreciate the metaphor of using clay that you use for writing. I think more writers would persist if they viewed writing this way, instead of setting their standards too high, and then being horrified at how awful their first (or even second or third) writing draft looks. I get in a fight with my critical mind every time I write; over time I’ve gotten better at ignoring it, knowing that its place comes during the editing stages, not the creative stages. And finally, I am SO guilty of taking too much time to research in the beginning stages–I like how you write down what you imagine it will be even with historical fiction, and then research it later.

  30. lynnru

    Your comment about deadlines really hit home for me. I finished my first draft over 10 years ago. When I went into business for myself, I thought I would have all the time in the world to dedicate to writing. I was wrong. When you live hand to mouth, all your thought goes into paying the bills. Now I’m trying to give myself a reasonable but realistic deadline for draft 2. Thanks for reminder!

  31. Kristin Conroy

    This is exactly what I needed to read today Kathy! I’ve just started writing my first novel and I’ve been cautious about starting too early, as in not knowing exactly every plot point, detail, and bit of research first. You helped me realize I have done enough prep work to ground and guide me…now it’s time to dive in! Your point in the intro about just getting it down on paper so you have something to work with really hit home. And I really loved the part about using caps as a placeholder for research LATER so it didn’t slow you down or take you off on a field trip!

  32. WittyWriterEditor

    I LOVE the idea of “writing seasons”. I’ve got four (or more) story ideas in various stages of development that I’ve been focusing on recently, and I had no clue how to get them all done. I can totally see how concentrating on one for three months and then moving on to another one (even if I’m not quite done with the first) will help me make at least some progress on each project without getting burned out or overwhelmed by any of them.Thank you for sharing this! :-)

  33. MartiWrites

    I found the second tip – thinking of the first draft as the clay, rather than as the sculpture – to be the most helpful. It set off little fireworks in my brain and I’ll be sharing this with my writers group later this morning. Thank you!

  34. amaraann

    Thank you for your article! Your tips make the whole process seem much less daunting than I thought. I’ve finished my first novel outline and haven’t been able to find the time/courage to start the actual first draft and your tips made me feel a lot better about the idea. I hope to start it after I finish this semester and finish it over my summer break and maybe start the second draft or outline for vol. 2. Thanks again!

  35. takikoazn

    Thank you for the article. I am in the middle of the first draft for one of my novel’s. I will certainly use the pointers when I am done. Have a wonderful March everyone.

  36. crickett

    Great advice and very helpful, thanks. I’ve been contemplating an idea for an historical novel for some time now and wondered if I could start working on the story before completing the research. Didn’t know if that was a good idea or not. So glad to know it works. Love the idea about using caps for fact checking and fill-ins. Thanks.

  37. hkmelcher

    Thank you so much for your post. Your recommendation, “Don’t let a lack of research slow you down.” Is exactly what I needed to hear. I have been working, on and off, on a historical fiction book (which will be part of a series) for about a decade, but I keep tucking it away and going back to writing non-fiction because I feel like I need to do more research to get the detail right. In my other writing, I often type sections in red if I know I need to go back and tweak them, so your suggestion to just mark the places that need research is just what I needed to hear. I also appreciate your wisdom in suggesting to set deadlines for each draft so that there is a sense of completion and closure at various points along the way. Congratulations on the publication and positive reception of A Violet Season.

  38. brenany

    Thanks For the advice. I’ve wanted to start this novel for a really long time, but the largeness of the task has discouraged me. I understand now that it doesn’t have to come out perfect the first time and definitely won’t. It’s a work of progress, of being consistent, not an instantly perfect thing. As a writer you can’t become too bogged down and making your work flawless, or you’ll never move forward. Thanks for spelling it out so well and congratulations on your debut novel!

  39. nltgal

    I just wanted to say that the only exception to never showing your first draft to anyone would be to your fellow writers group members. It’s a safe place for me to be reminded to show, not tell; where I need more details and what’s working. I’m saving those comments for the second draft. If I try to revise now, I will, as you say, get bogged down in which draft is which. The weekly meeting keeps me on task too.

  40. Edwina

    This was a great article! Lots of useful information. My first book I wrote as a “panster.” My second book, which I am now writing, I have a detailed outline. Outlines win over no outlines any day!!

  41. Yellowapple

    Am planning to use this advice to start over on my first novel. I got bogged down and went on to another project. This will give me a great start for a redo! Thanks.

  42. Sandie

    I find the research thing can work two ways for me. Sometimes it feeds the plot and helps me plan, other times I use it to flesh out the authenticity of my piece. I loved the simplicity of the 5 step plan. Thanks.

  43. misscue

    Thank you for the inspiration! I especially like the first-draft-as-clay-vs-the-sculpture analogy. I used to edit corporate correspondence for a living, so instead of being obsessed with correcting things on the first go, I have to focus on getting everything down while it’s fresh. It’s a hard habit to break, but it’s getting easier to “let go” and worry about revising later.

    Best wishes on your new project!


  44. Joy In the Morning

    I’ve always understood that you have to have consistent writing practices, which I don’t. It was a relief to know it’s okay to write when you can, even when it takes several years. Good practical advice, and I must comment on your stunning photograph!

  45. janiewrites

    I’m starting my first novel and was sort of floundering around with the idea. I am not a fan of outlines, but I like your advice for creating one. I am going to start it today. I am sure it will give me focus and direction. Thank you!

  46. lazuli

    These are great tips. Thanks! I’m just beginning to really begin the outline process, and your tips are very encouraging and helpful. Your novel looks and sounds very interesting too. I hope I win!

  47. klzeep

    Hello, All. I’m glad this post was helpful! I’ve been trying to respond personally to questions, but my posts aren’t showing up–not sure why, but I’ll try again later.

  48. esparhawk

    I’ve spent hours at the public library researching slave-trade ships and done absolutely nothing with that research. So when I read, “Don’t let the research slow you down,” it really hit home. And yet, while skimming through random (and possibly un-trustworthy) websites about Colonial clothing, I stumbled across an interesting article about a Colonial holiday celebration that’s now out of style. It has inspired three chapters!

    But how do you find that balance between inspiration and getting mired in interesting details?

    1. klzeep

      Isn’t it great when that happens? Lots of unplanned stuff makes it in! That’s part of the fun! The balance, I suppose, has to do with whether those little discoveries serve the story.

  49. CVenzon

    Before I write my first draft, I like to write the basic story as if I were explaining it to someone else. It helps me toy with different possibilities in developing the characters’ personalities, plot twists, settings, etc. Later I’ll go back to it to help me regain focus if I feel I’m going off track.

  50. theatlanticlove

    This is great advice! The trouble I always have is actually “ending” a draft, like you mentioned. I should actually finish one before I start another. And your book sounds like my favorite type of genre to read!

  51. DanielJayBerg

    Research can sometimes sidetrack my entire writing session, as I start Googling topics and the chase ensues! I’ll have to try the all caps trick.

    As an educator, my writing time often increases in the summer season. What sort of writing you do between the summers?

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. klzeep

      I’m writing some more now during the school year, but when I couldn’t, I still scheduled in time every Saturday morning. In between, I was always researching, and thinking–letting the novel stew. Also dabbling in some short fiction. Good luck balancing your teaching and writing!

  52. byutm33

    Wow, thank-you so much for this advice! Your idea that a first draft is only slightly better than nothing is great–I wish I had read this before I wrote my first draft! Can’t wait to apply your tips on my next novel.

  53. traucohm

    Thank you, that is all very good advice!

    I feel it even applies to me even though I am writing non fiction a memoir about my father who was a WW2 German child soldier. I found out it is very easy to get lost in the research and not work hard enough on the next draft.

  54. bellsjane

    I appreciate your analogy of the draft being the clay, not the sculpture and just getting from the start to the finish. Thinking about it that way will help free me from spending too much time wordsmithing too early, and never finishing. Thanks!

  55. alexhuite

    Great article. I especially like number two and three. Regardless of how immature my writting sounds, keeping in mind that its not finnished on top of the face that nobody else has to read it really does help. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  56. vrundell

    Great ideas to keep in mind. As a person who only works from a mental outline, I appreciate the fluidity of your outlining philosophy. Best of luck in the revision process!

  57. Danielle

    Really loved #4. I love historical fiction and want to write it but I’ve noticied already in my research and putting together an outline for a book, I get overwhelmed by how much I don’t know vs. how much I’ve actually learned. What I’ve done is write down on post-it notes as I’m researching, people, places, events, etc. that pop up that could be useful for me to investigate further. Then, I transfer that to a word document as a running list of what I need to look at further.

    I’ll have to try the CAPS approach as a placemarker when I get to finally writing that first draft! Great ideas.

  58. jlhuspek

    Heh…you can only learn by doing it. At least, that’s my take on it. But everything you’ve said is Gospel. Hope to win your book. It sounds great!

    jlhuspek [at] msn [dot] com

  59. Tim

    Great article — not just worthwhile advice, but entertaining as well. Love the caveat — trips with my husband sans kids — awesome. Yeah, i.e., don’t adhere to an outline with the same rigor as getting the kids to school in the morning. ugh.

    So important to just get it all out — your analogies are great — better than oral surgery, worse than folding laundry. Don’t worry about the details, or how embarrassed you’d be if people saw it (since they don’t have to), and go for it.

    When I first started my soon-to-be masterpiece, I thought, “Hey! First time’s the charm!” well, that was years ago, and I’m a wiser writer now (will be submitting the third rewrite this spring). I now outline my chapters, and sometimes transfer the outline to post-its, post them on a sheet of cardboard, and look at them like a storyboard — which can be deleted, modified, consolidated. Sometimes helps to see the story a little less linearly, if you know what I mean.

    Great post. Congratulations on the publication.


  60. The Black Knight

    Thanks for the great tips! I am currently working on writing the first draft of my YA fantasy novel, and I have to admit. It’s hard. Reading this has not only encouraged me, but as given me some motivation. The idea to write a new draft each summer intrigues me… I think I’ll do that! I don’t have much time to write during the school season anyways….

    Thank you for the inspiration, and good luck!