Tips for Tackling the Painful First Draft

Writers come in two camps (okay, there’s probably a thousand camps, but just play along with me). There are those that love writing the first draft – when all the possibilities are endless and the imagination can scamper about the gray matter with abandon. Then there are those where writing the first draft is a painful, slow, and not unlike having your intestines pulled out through your belly button. I fall in the latter camp. I LOVE revising – having something to work with, to make better. But putting down those first bones is brutal.


While I’ve only written two first drafts (and a partial YA that we will never discuss), I’ve discovered a few things that work well for me.

Know where you’re going. Before I start writing chapter 1, I sketch out a three act outline (see SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder or STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL by KM WEILAND for wonderful explanations), so I know what events need to happen. Sometimes it’s pages and pages, and sometimes it’s scattered on note cards around my room. After two drafts, I’ve realized this step is important to me. If I can nail down a plot I’m happy with, it makes all the rest so much faster and more enjoyable. I know my characters are going to be skeletal and motivations unclear – but I’m optimistic I’ll have a few shining moments and phrases I can work with going into the future drafts.

Don’t look back. For me, first draft writing is a head-down bull-in-a-china-shop experience. I can’t look up until it’s done. If I do look back, it’s not to revise, but to add notes for future revision. Sometimes it is tempting to work a chapter until it’s perfect, but I don’t know what kind of images and themes I want to exploit until I can look at the book as a whole. So goal number 1 is to finish. I do have one addendum – I will go back and read the scene or two the precedes what I’m writing to have some continuity.

Have daily writing goals. This is crucial for me. When drafting, it’s really easy to get stuck in spots that aren’t fleshed out yet. It’s tempting to fall down a Tumblr rabbit hole while researching pictures for what you want your characters to look like (hint – do this before you begin drafting). Or at least wait until you have your words down. Maybe your goal is to write 2000 words a day or to finish one scene. It doesn’t have to be a huge goal – just one that is consistent. I find 1000 words a day is very doable, and will often find myself writing well past that.

Save the big scenes for emergency. I try to write my stories start to finish, but I’ll inevitably get stuck after a few chapters and not know what should come next. Rather than stare at the screen, I jump ahead to the next big scene. By hammering out the next big moment, I can then go back and fill in what needs to happen to get my characters and plot ready for that moment. This has saved my daily word count goals more than once.

Celebrate! When you type The End, celebrate! You just wrote a book! Yes, there is a lot of work left to do, but you framed it in. During revisions, you’ll add the walls and windows, put in floors and hang curtains – but now you have a place to start.

HP Party

Step away. Let that baby marinate. It’s not time to revise. Give it a few weeks – or a month – or longer if you want. The point is, you need to reset your brain so when you do look at it, it’s with fresh eyes. You’ll be surprised at how unbiased you can be about what needs to change and what is worth keeping. If you did your work plotting it out, chances are the draft you have can be revised into something magical!

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Amy Reichert

Amy E. Reichert is the author of THE COINCIDENCE OF COCONUT CAKE (Simon & Schuster/Gallery, July 21 2015), about food, love, and second chances, and where serendipity comes in the form of a delicious coconut cake. Find out more at

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Author: Amy Reichert

Amy E. Reichert is the author of THE COINCIDENCE OF COCONUT CAKE (Simon & Schuster/Gallery, July 21 2015), about food, love, and second chances, and where serendipity comes in the form of a delicious coconut cake. Find out more at

7 Replies to “Tips for Tackling the Painful First Draft”

  1. “Know where you’re going.”

    I mostly don’t, but I find it varies. There’s the old adage (which is true and not true) that you never learn how to write a novel — you just learn how to write the novel you’re writing now.

    As I say, true and not true.

    With one recent story, I wrote the entire last chapter fairly early on (as recommended by Truman Capote), and then the story took one unexpected turn and my tense standoff between several heavily-armed characters turned into a quiet rooftop conversations between two crazy women.

    As Orson Welles said, “Whenever I make a film, I always start making a plan. I always end up throwing out the plan, but I always make it.”

    1. Fair point, Anthony – when making a plan – you always need to be ready to through it one when something better comes along.

      1. It was very encouraging to read the History of Middle Earth series, which shows some of the many drafts Tolkien went through in writing Lord of the Rings.

        Many major elements of the final book were not part of his original (or second or third) plan, but when they finally showed up he knew they were right.

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