7 Reasons to Write an Entire 1st Draft before Going Back to the Beginning

There are important benefits of writing a novel or memoir from beginning to end before going back and starting again. Here are seven of them that you should know.

1) Rather than stop and start over again and again, when you allow yourself to write a rough first draft from beginning to end, you actually finish a draft all the way through.

2) Until you write the end, you do not have a clear grasp of what comes earlier.

3) You accomplish what you set out to do.


m.-aldersonMartha Alderson, aka the Plot Whisperer, is the author of the Plot Whisperer series of writing resources for authors: The Plot Whisperer Book of Writing Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing , The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories, companion workbook to The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master (Adams Media, a division of F+W Media), Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple (Illusion Press) and several ebooks on plot.

As an international plot consultant for writers, Martha’s clients include best-selling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She teaches plot workshops to novelists, memoirists, and screenwriters privately, at plot retreats, through Learning Annex, RWA, SCBWI, CWC chapter meetings, Writer’s Digest, The Writers Store and writers’ conferences where she takes writers beyond the words and into the very heart of a story.

As the founder December, International Plot Writing Month better known as PlotWriMo, Martha manages the award-winning blog for writers: The Plot Whisperer which has been awarded honors as a top writing advice blog by Writers Digest 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013. Her vlog, How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay  covers 27 steps to plotting your story from beginning to end and playlists to help writers create a compelling plot for their novels, memoirs and screenplays. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.


4) Once you have a skeleton in place, you are able to stand back and “see” her story in an entirely new light

5) Until you write the entire story, you do not know the end. And until you write the end—the climax—you do not know what belongs in the beginning.

6) The less time you devote to making every word perfect in the first couple of drafts the less painful future cuts and revisions will be. Because you haven’t invested hundreds of hours going back to the beginning, you’ll be less reluctant to cut the customary thirty-five to one hundred pages that almost always get chopped from the beginning of the manuscript. The more of yourself you give to making every word perfect before moving to the next scene, the more emotionally attached you become to the words. Cutting your work is never easy, but the more you can endure the chaos of ugly prose, gaps, and missteps in the early drafts, the better.

7) One of the greatest benefits of writing a truly awful, lousy, no good first draft is that it can only get better from there.

Join Martha October 17th at 10am Pacific and learn
How to Pre-Plot & Complete a Novel or Memoir in a Month:
The Benefits of Writing a Fast Draft from Beginning to End

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14 thoughts on “7 Reasons to Write an Entire 1st Draft before Going Back to the Beginning

  1. paulchernoch

    As I mature as a writer, my writing process changes. The writer’s advice seems consistent with the way I currently write. It is not advice that I would have been able to follow a few years ago, and in the future I may adopt a different process.

    When I was a new writer, I had so many areas that needed polishing, so many techniques that I had no idea about how to employ, that I needed well over a dozen drafts before I had anything decent. Each draft I dedicated to improving a few more aspects of my story.

    Today, my first draft is pretty clean and ready for a critique partner. That does not mean that I do not need to spend months at rewriting, just that what I turn out is free of most spelling and grammar errors, tells a coherent and structured story, and has substantially the overall shape that the final version will have.

    I outline. During my current effort, once I hit the midpoint, I rewrote the outline of the remaining chapters about five times, pretty much after every second or third chapter. I call it a headlight outline: I can see clearly until the next bend in the road, but past that, it may turn unexpectedly.

    Because I outline, I “know” the ending, but I don’t. After each rewrite of my outline I again “know” the ending, but my knowing isn’t 100% accurate until I actually write the last chapter. Then I can go back and fix the opening.

    As for editing as I go along, I always write a chapter and immediately do a quick edit for stupid stuff before handing it over to my critique partner.

    One reason for my uncertainty in my ending despite outlining is that I am a plot-first writer. It takes me a long time to figure out the personalities of my characters. Once I know them, it forces changes upon me. In my current story, I needed to know the motivation of my antagonist. Once I understood that, I realized I had the wrong antagonist! I went through for or five potential antagonists before I chose which one would be the main villain. They needed to have a motivation that complimented my heroine’s personal weakness and goal, and only one of the villains did. This uncertainty in who the right villain was translated into a complex ending, which made it hard to outline.

  2. Coyote Malandrin

    At 63, and only getting serious about writing a little over a year ago, I am certainly not an authority on this subject. I think that everyone has their own way of doing things, but shouldn’t discount information from the pro’s. I have three novels in various stages of completion. Writing three books at the same time, I sometimes find it necessary to start at the beginning and re-acquaint myself with my characters and the story. In the process, I just naturally do some rewrite. When I begin a story, I have a general idea of the direction it will take…and the ending. But like the characters, the story develops as I write it. Ideas come to me in the midst of the story, and can then change some elements of the story, but the general direction remains. In the three novels I am currently writing, I sometimes find myself writing segments out of sequence. On novel three, I am about 60% done with the story…and I have already written the ending. The idea for the ending came to me, and I wrote it when it was fresh in my mind. On novel one, I was about half done with the story, and have written several chapters that take place much later in the story. When inspiration strikes…that’s when you write it down. So I don’t really feel there is a specific formula for writing. Each writer will find their comfort zone, and their way of expressing themselves.

  3. kern frost

    Ultimately the dilemma is a choice between sustained creative flow and logical structure. The imagination is an unrestricted creative source we access as children, and then are taught to frame within defined paths…essentially constricting the flow into an ‘acceptable’ format. Creativity for someone like Motzart was pure genius, and it could be argued he was channeling from a creative source beyond ‘thinking out’ structure. When I first put pen to paper for my first book on influence, it took me literally years to think it all out and revise as I went along, with the added difficulty of being dyslexic. The propect of writing a novel was beyond my confidence level. However, after studying the limitations of dyslexics (how they have to think everything out in some cases, rather than learn and commit to the subconcious to automate) and the unbelievable out put of the great masters of music, I reasoned they were potentially channeling creative thought, which would be infinitely faster than working with the conscious mind to structure everything. Using this as a base for writing my first creative book, …humorous/philosophical epitaphs and poems on the meaning of life and death, I wrote a word and then let the creativity take over. 600 flowed over three days. Subsequently, I used the technique to write my first novel of 96k in under three weeks, never actually knowing where the next sentence was going. I will leave it to my readers to decide if it was mindless dribble or not. Now I’m on my ninth book, with my total output last year coming close to half a million words. Creativity flows if we want it to, as we have all the necessary structures within our minds to develop excellent first drafts, if we simply choose to let the barriers down. It takes a little faith and practice, but the results are well worth the investment

  4. Beans N Rice

    I also wouldn’t follow this advice. I know it’s the quicker way to go about things, but that only counts for your first draft. You can write the first draft in a week like this and then end up editing and rewriting for four years. If you love editing and rewriting that much, go for it. Personally, I would just toss a first draft in the dustbin if it looks like crap. I’ve done it before. I used to write reports and a few things for newspapers, so I’m used to editing right after I finished a chapter. My first completed draft is thus usually a second or third draft. I then submit something that is readable on my critique group, unlike some people that post stuff they scribbled down while sitting on the toilet. You’re never going to get a proper critique if you submit crap. Editing while writing takes longer, but the next draft is usually just a few things that needs to be changed. I’m not particularly narcissistic, so I don’t fall in love with my own words.

    1. atwhatcost

      This was particularly unfair. Ms. Alderson didn’t even hint on whether we should outline, know the plot or make it up as we go along. With that, how do you assume she doesn’t know her story before she starts?

      I did follow this method. (I did so 2.5 years ago and I’m still working on it, but I’m to the polishing-it-again stage, after having other writers critique the first polished manuscript.) I’ve always known how my stories would work out before opening up my first blank document. The first two attempts I tried to do it like you do it, and it didn’t work for me because I kept thinking “this is pure crap” before I could start the fourth chapter. Two times I didn’t finish the novel in my head, because I tried to force it your way. The third time, I stopped worrying about how good it was and just got it out.

      I’m new to writing novels. I’m not new to writing. Ms. Alderson made some worthwhile suggestions. I didn’t see anywhere that she ordered us to do it this way, nor did I see anywhere that she suggested we just whirlwind on a first idea.

      You, on the other hand, seem to think that everyone who doesn’t do it your way is going to hand in a pile of junk to a writer’s group. Not true. I did it like that, but I wasn’t ready for my first critique for another eight months. No kidding lots of new writers do that, but her logic isn’t the cause. Look at her credentials. Do you honestly think she wrote all those things by slam-bamming a first draft out of the blue?

      You don’t have to agree with her suggestions. It always comes down to “what works best for you.” But you took this one step further and contend she’s wrong, because she doesn’t do it your way. That’s wrong! That’s unfair.

  5. XSGame

    With only one self-published novel under my belt, admittedly, I am not the best candidate to be critiqueing the expert opinion of any writing guru of any professional stature, and so I won’t. Plus, I have never written a novel under the guideline of “7 reasons,” so I cannot condemn or extol the virtues of such. With that being said, the thing that helped me most during the process of writing my novel was that I wrote the climactic ending first. I knew where everything was headed and how it would end, and that allowed me to direct all the synergistically entwined elements towards that pre-scripted ending without getting sidetracked or lost along the way. … Reading what I wrote during the previous writing session–and no further back than that–with only a small amount of editing of that previously written prose before getting at it again, facilitated a strong connectivity and a fluid continuity to the linear progression of my story. … Thanks, Brian Klems, for your excellent writing blog. Your expert views and opinions have helped me immensely in my writing.

    1. sassy

      I agree without reservation. I enjoy going back, rewriting until I feel it says what I want to say. I try to approach reading and rewrite objectively as if it is the first time around. If I find I want to read more, then I am pleased and move on from there. But, my personality is I am an organized person. My story is finished before I begin. I know the beginning and the ending. The hard part for me is the middle where I must create the scenes, characterizations and subplots that move my story to the ending.

  6. CattyQueen

    I have tried writing all the way through and then going back to edit. It doesn’t work for me. Even if I have a good idea of where the story’s going, there are usually tons of changes between beginning and end. If I don’t take time to edit, I end up with so many inconsistencies the story gets lost. And making notes doesn’t help.
    I don’t edit the first few chapters to get things perfect. It takes time for a character to reveal herself, I rewrite and edit when I discover something that takes the story in a new direction.

  7. bdaniels119

    Not everyone outlines, some of us are “pantsers.” And I also have to write the entire story before I go back to edit. Outlining might make my life easier, but I’ve tried and I just can’t do it. Most of my ideas come as I’m typing. I completely agree with what she says.

  8. ARCTG

    I totally agree with her strategy, plus it’s the same as Stephen King, which I was so thankful to read. It is not a formula for all, but is for some. My story unfolds as I write it, I don’t know the ending until the chapters pour out, and then suddenly wha la – there’s the ending. Afterwards, I go back and start the revision process, which I love, and form the draft into a book. Just depends on the type of artist and creative mind. I’m not a Donald Mass writer/reviser either, write 20K words, go back and revise those, before going forward.That’s another way of doing it. To each their own.

  9. MookyMcD

    I don’t agree with a word she said. I wouldn’t start a novel if I didn’t know how it was going to end. Points 2, 4, and 5 all go away if you outline. Her first and third points are a non-issue for me – I’m going to finish it (my outline shows me exactly how). That leaves six and seven — the benefits of having a crappy first draft. I will pass on those to have a decent first draft.

    1. atwhatcost

      She didn’t say we can’t know the end when we start.

      She said both:
      “2) Until you write the end, you do not have a clear grasp of what comes earlier.”
      “5) Until you write the entire story, you do not know the end. And until you write the end—the climax—you do not know what belongs in the beginning.”

      I knew both my beginning and my end. Only after I wrote it, could I go back and include the foreshadowing and the hints along the way to make a more accurate beginning and rising action, and I learned I ended too late. I didn’t see the reoccurring humor and the reoccurring fears of my POV character. There were tidbits here and there that would only be included in an outline, if all I had to do with the outline was add chapter numbers by the time I had it that detailed.

      It seems many comments merely reflect inflexibility and the need to always be right, instead of expanding our ideas on what we can do with our writing.


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