Rough Drafts are…well…rough

It’s funny how when you finally sit down to write that first page of your rough draft it seems as if the dentist is pulling a tooth. Why oh why does it seem impossible to fill that blank page when 5 seconds ago your mind was swirling with thoughts? It sounds simple initially to write that first draft, but it can be quite difficult to accomplish if you’re not determined.

New York Times’ Bestselling author, Nora Roberts, says, “You can fix anything but a blank page.”

So first, lets talk about what a rough draft is:

It’s important to understand the definition of a first draft: your first attempt at putting your thoughts into final form. You aren’t creating the final piece of writing in this step. Think about painting a wall. You don’t put on one coat of paint and call it done. Instead, you start with a coat or two of primer. Then you put on a couple coats of the final color. You certainly wouldn’t put on the primer and the final color at the same time. That would defeat the purpose.

Writing a rough draft is very similar. Your first draft is like the first coat of paint. You have to get that down before you can add the subsequent coats in revision.

Sometimes, though not always, your rough draft will be pretty bad. It won’t sound right; it will have grammar mistakes; some parts won’t make any sense and others will be off-topic. It’s important to realize that that’s okay. You can fix all these problems in revision. The important thing in writing a rough draft is just to get the ideas down as best you can.

Your main goal is to turn the ideas from your outline, post-it notes, or scribblings into sentences and arrange them into a first draft.

You might be asking yourself, “how do I do that exactly?”

Use a warm-up routine before you write. Psychologists advise people who have trouble falling asleep to follow the same routine every night before bed. Doing the same actions in the same order sends a signal to the brain that it’s time to sleep. The same idea works for writing. When you’re ready to work on a writing project, have a little routine you go through first. This might include making a cup of tea, starting up the computer, clearing space on your desk. You can choose any series of steps that works for you. Doing this each time you sit down to write will soon train your mind to focus on your writing when you need it to. Just make sure you don’t get side tracked and procrastinate. You don’t want to end up paying bills online instead of typing away at your rough draft!

Start by reading the previous steps. Lay out all the steps you’ve done so far: your prewriting, thesis, and outline. Looking over these steps will help you re-connect with what you mean to say, what got you interested in this writing project in the first place. Re-igniting your enthusiasm for the topic can propel you into writing the draft.

Give yourself permission to write badly. Drafting is not the time for perfectionism. If you’re too eager to write well, you may pressure yourself into not writing at all. It’s okay for your first draft to be bad. My first rough draft of my manuscript started out sounding like it had been written by a fourth grader, and not a very smart one, either. If you just persevere through those first clunky sentences and awkward paragraphs, you’ll probably find that the writing starts to get smoother as you loosen up. And if not, that’s fine too. Because there’s one major rule in drafting that you’ll learn to love: done is better than perfect.

Start anywhere you want. When you’re writing from an outline, you don’t need to start drafting at the beginning of a piece. If the first paragraph is hard to write, start somewhere else. You can choose to start with sections of the draft that you’re most interested in to get the writing process flowing, or you can start with sections you find challenging to get those out of the way. Writing small sections, one at a time, will make getting through your draft easier. Later, when you put the pieces together, you can add appropriate transitions to make sure the writing flows.

Some people are truly linear thinkers and MUST write the story in chronological order. It’s fine if that’s you. If you find yourself stalled and don’t know what happens next, try other methods for a breakthrough:

  • Switch to free-writing in a notebook and interview a character to see what information they hold.
  • Open a new file on your laptop and list possible solutions to your plotting problem (1-2-3-4).
  • Go for a walk (or any repetitive activity) and stage a conversation between two characters in your mind and see what they reveal.

Keep moving forward. In the drafting stage, it usually isn’t a good idea to stop and go back over what you’ve written. Remember, you’re writing a rough draft. It’s supposed to have imperfections. Some writers feel they can’t move on to the next sentence till they get the current one right. But if you work this way, you risk never getting to that next sentence; you certainly won’t get there quickly. And all that time could be wasted in the end if you find in revision that the sentence you slaved over so long needs to be cut from the piece anyway. So here’s my advice: spend at least 90% of your drafting time moving forward. Save the revising for the step where it belongs.

Leave blanks when necessary. Don’t stress over facts you don’t have, words you can’t think of, or ideas you can’t seem to express just right. If you come to a place in the draft where you don’t have what you need, put in a place holder and move on. For example, you can just write, “Need better description,” or “Research more.” You might want to highlight these or type them in color so you don’t miss them in revision.

And here are a few pitfalls to avoid when writing your rough draft:

  1. Perfectionism KILLS Creativity and Productivity

I’ve already mentioned this, but I want to really stress this! Writing is messy. I mean, m-e-s-s-y. This is true whether it’s novels, short stories, memoirs or how-to’s.

That first day at my laptop, I wrote tiny snippets of at least a dozen different scenes. I typed as fast as possible, writing as much as I could about the characters, their dialogue and setting, but I also typed phrases like: describe the palace more, what are the servants wearing?

When I hit a wall with that particular scene, I immediately switched to whichever scene struck me next. It was a hodge-podge of confusion, but it was still twenty new pages that gave me solid bones to my book. It also let me understand my story better. By the end of that session, I rearranged those chaotic, unfinished scenes into semi-order.

Bottom line: Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity and productivity. Give yourself the time and space to let your story be far from perfect in the beginning.

  1. Doubt is Part of the Creative Process

Self-doubt, perfectionism, procrastination…whatever keeps you from writing are just fancy words for fear.

This is normal.

Fear will do anything and everything to stop you, make you start your book over (and over again), or quit altogether.

The good news about fear is the more you love your story, the more negative emotions you’ll experience while writing it. Fear is a bizarre, but useful gauge to show you how important this piece is to you.

If the thought of it doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you, then you’re wasting your time, effort and energy.

Bottom line: All kinds of doubt and fear are part of the creative process. Expect it, then write anyway.

  1. You Don’t Understand Your Story Until It’s Written

No matter how much you plot, outline, or plan your work beforehand, you can’t comprehend it’s mysteries until you put pen to paper.

It’s exhilarating when you discover a surprise twist, or a dark secret about your character, or find the theme of your book.

If you won’t give your story the time of day, then your story won’t give its treasures to you.

Bottom line: You must commit time, heart and energy to your writing, before your story reveals itself to you.

Writing s rough draft doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. However, I’m not saying you’ll be completely sane either when you finish. It’s okay though, none of us writers really were sane to begin with. LOL! Just focus on getting the ideas on paper. If you keep in mind that you can, and will, go back and make the paper better in revision, getting though that first draft becomes a lot easier.

You got this! Happy Writing Ya’ll!

P.S. Obviously, my blog had a little makeover! Let me know if you have any questions! Enjoy and thanks for reading and following!

2 thoughts on “Rough Drafts are…well…rough

  1. I like the warm-up routine concept. Need to incorporate that. As for giving myself permission to write badly … that one ain’t as simple as the warm-up routine …


    • Routine has really helped me a lot, cause I can get distracted so easily. The writing bad was hard for me too at first. But I found that writing anything at all made me feel like I had at least done something. Anything is better than a blank page. 🙂 thanks for commenting! Hope everything goes good with your writing!


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