Write the First Draft of a Novel in 3 Steps

For some people writing the first draft is the easiest part, but for others, a first draft is never complete. First drafts are where so many of my projects die. Recently I’ve been able to push past that stage and get my projects closer to completion — or at least publication. 

I break my first draft writing process into three different steps so that I can finish the story, get it down on paper, and make sure I’m ready for the second draft. 

Step 1: Write Longhand

When working on a first draft, I find that turning on a computer, locating the file, opening it, scrolling down to the part I left off (which doesn’t take long, but every second counts), and then finally starting is a long time between going to write and writing. This friction daily is enough to throw me off. 

That is one reason why I prefer to write in a physical notebook. All I have to do is open it and continue where I left last. I don’t get distracted by the Internet, I get to take a break from screens, and above all, I can’t easily hit the delete key and erase everything I wrote. 

Writing a novel takes a long time, and when you’re working on the first draft, your goal is getting the story written. You can’t do that if you’re deleting ideas at this step. You need to keep moving forward and figure it out as you go. If you have an outline, keep following it until the end. 

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Step 2: Transcribe to Computer 

Now that I have the first draft on paper, I can prep it for the second draft. Some may consider transcribing the story onto the computer as writing the second draft, but I don’t. I don’t plan to make any major changes because I don’t want to put that pressure on the process. My main goal is to experience the story for the first time as an active audience member, not as a critic. 

However, during the transcribing phase, I may fill in blanks or make small changes that I couldn’t focus on while I wrote. When I’m writing, I need to move fast. While I still move quickly in the transcription stage, I do have a bit more time to look around. Updates such as changing characters’ names, attributing dialogue to different characters, or removing repetitions are all small changes I can make without delaying the process. 

While transcribing, I don’t spend too much time editing. But when something critical comes to mind, that’s great! I’ll add it and let future me smooth it out later. Nevertheless, the primary objective of this phase is to get it onto the computer in an editable format. 

Step 3: Read, Highlight, and Comment

Once all the words are on the computer, I can start the second draft and go into making changes. But wait. Editing a novel is a massive project that can be very discouraging. This is a process that will take weeks, if not months. I want to prepare and go in with momentum and a clear idea of what to do each time I sit down to work.

In this step, I read through the whole novel and make comments along the way. Anything that occurs to me, I’d leave a note. This can be something along the line of “describe more” or “rewrite sentence” or “cut” or “can I move this earlier in the story?” 

I don’t need to make the changes at that very moment or touch the delete button at all. I just need to mark down how I felt while reading. I can come back to work on the draft later and get a second opinion. Do I still feel the need to cut or make the change? Or does it read better on the second visit?

Comments and highlights give you a focus when you sit down to work. Without that focus early in the editing phase, you may get stuck adding and removing commas for hours. 

Writing the first draft may sound easy. It’s just one task, write. While that may be true, I believe a process with multiple steps helps me move forward and reach the bigger milestone. Not only do I want to get it done, I also want to prepare it for the next phase. I want to set it up so well that if I die, another person can take all my notes and work on it the way I wanted them to. I see it as creating a plan for myself in the future. And with personal projects, the future me is another person. 

There you have it! That’s my first draft writing process: Finish it, make it editable, and prep it for the second draft. Remember, there are as many ways to write the first draft as there are writers. The key is to find a method that works for you. If you’re stuck, give this approach a try or check out these videos here. 

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