James Thurber said, “Don’t get it right. Get it written.” [Click to Tweet] That piece of drafting knowledge has been repeated over and over by the writing community, and it’s one quote that is difficult to poke holes in. Whether you are a panther or a plotter, whether you write ornate prose and then cut or write script-like scenes and then add, whether you spend years trickling out a manuscript or pour out your story in a matter of weeks, everyone agrees that the first draft is not meant to be your story’s perfect form and that finishing it is the most important thing.
As Nora Roberts said, “You can’t edit a blank page.” That’s why a first draft’s quality is judged only by its existence. If it exists, it’s perfect.
To that end, let’s talk about some techniques to help you get that draft written—in all its typo-riddled, inconsistent, structurally-unstable glory.
1. Use brackets.
You know those moments when you’re writing, and you can’t come up with the word you want? You can stare at the wall and rack your brain for an hour, and you’ll still be watching the cursor blink like it’s laughing at you. Guess what? That’s an hour you could have been writing. When that happens, place a reminder in brackets—whether it’s the “almost” word or a description of the meaning you’re going for—and move on. During editing, you can pour through your thesaurus until you figure out what you wanted to say, or more likely, the word will just come to you. Because that’s how life works. Plus, brackets will never show up in fiction—if they do, good luck explaining that to your editor—so a simple find/replace will always pull up each instance of “missing” words.
Ex. A [six-sided shape] was painted in blood on the brick wall. – A hexagon was painted in blood on the brick wall.
This technique is also good for character names—I’ve been known to leave a scattering of [Surname]s throughout my work—as well as any tidbits you’ll need to research.
2. Don’t name “prop” characters.
Call every server, stranger, and cashier Suzy or John. If you’re the type of writer who needs each name to be perfect and who becomes attached to names very quickly, adding minor characters can take much longer than it should. Instead of stressing over exactly what to call that childhood friend who appears for one paragraph, have a male name and a female name (or one gender-neutral name) designated as temporary. That way you can drop it into the story without becoming attached to it, and you’ll be able to keep the words flowing! Call every minor character Dipshit if you like. Just don’t stop writing.
3. Make it a game.
Getting too hung up on numbers can be detrimental, but remember that when it comes to the first draft, progress is progress. Here are a few ideas for making the drafting process feel like a game, where you’re “scoring” instead of simply writing.
- Give yourself deadlines.
- Try to beat last week’s word count.
- Do writing sprints, and see how many words you can write.
- Give yourself a set time to write, and tell a friend before you start and after you’re done.
- Reward yourself for reaching milestones.
Remember that your draft can be the worst thing you’ve ever written. Give yourself permission to write shit. When you do, I guarantee the words will start flowing, and you’ll be surprised at what leaves your pen.
Photo by Albert Mock
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