From Idea to Finished, Step 3: The First Draft

Posted on: 11th Sep 2014  /   Categorized: Writing Tips

At the end of the outlining process, which I discussed in my last blog post, I have in hand an outline that gives me a basic summary of what’s going to happen in the story from scene to scene to scene, and how this story will progress from beginning, through the middle, and all the way to a hopefully satisfactory conclusion.



Which brings us to… the first draft!



The first draft is definitely one of my favorite parts of the writing process. There’s so much that could happen. So many surprises await you! So many twists and mysteries to be uncovered! So many characters to fall in love with!



It can also be a very intimidating part of the process, because you have a grand idea in your head of what this story is going to be and if you start writing it and realize that it’s not coming together how you wanted or it isn’t as epic/brilliant/genius as you’d thought, well… that can be really frustrating. (Unfortunately, this happens every single time. Sigh.)



For me, I try to fend off the first-draft doubts by writing really fast first drafts.



Not every writer works this way, but I like to get all the words out as quickly as possible so that I can make ALL the mistakes that are going to be made in this first icky, messy attempt at the story, and then move on to the good stuff. (The good stuff being all the epic/brilliant/genius things I’m no doubt going to come up with during revisions.)



How fast is ‘fast’?


During the first draft, I generally write anywhere from 3,000-6,000 words per day, which means I can get through it in a month or less. (Fairest, my shortest novel, I wrote in about a week, Cinder took me about two weeks. My longest novel so far, Winter, took almost three months by comparison, and boy did I feel like a slacker.)




Of course, “fast” is going to mean different things for different writers. For some writers, 1,000 words in a day is a huge accomplishment, especially when you’re balancing day jobs and families and school and Adult Responsibilities. Not to mention that—writing is mentally draining! So don’t be discouraged if 3,000 words seems like an impossible goal for you. Be nice to yourself and embrace the pace that feels right for you. Progress is progress, after all.


One reason I’m able to write a fast first draft is because of that outline. It’s not that I never get stuck during this part of the process, but if something isn’t working out, I can at least look at my outline and see where I’m supposed to be heading.


In other words, I don’t follow my outline to the letter. The story inevitably takes on a life of its own, and I just try to keep up. But when I feel like the story is losing its way, I have that original roadmap to fall back on. I might take an occasional detour, but I can always look back and see where I was heading in the first place.



That said, there have also been times when I realized halfway through writing the first draft that my final destination was somewhere completely different than I’d originally thought. No problem! It’s easier to scrap two pages of an outline and rework them than to scrap 100 pages of a manuscript. I’m constantly fussing with and altering my outline as I discover new things about the story and characters.



Other than starting off with a decent outline, here are some strategies I use in writing my first drafts.





Strategy #1: Set a Daily Word Goal.


I’m big on self-imposed goals. I’d never get anything done without them!



I recommend choosing a daily goal that feels challenging so that you don’t squander an hour staring at the wall, knowing that you still have plenty of time to hit your word quota, but don’t choose a goal that seems so impossible you’ll get overwhelmed before you even start. Play around, find what feels right for you.



Part of the reason that the fast first draft works for me is because when I’m trying to crank out 3,000+ words a day, I really don’t have the time to stop and listen to that annoying inner editor. Did that last chapter suck? Too bad, at least I hit my word quota! It keeps me moving forward, no matter how the neurotic perfectionist in me is cringing at all the horrible choices I’m making.




Strategy #2: Humor the Internal Editor—but just barely.


Often it seems that just when things are starting to get rolling, that little voice in your head says, “That last chapter really sucked.” Or “This entire plot is a mess.” Or “Did you just write the cheesiest dialogue in the history of fiction? Yes, you did!”



The inner editor is a jerk, in case you didn’t know.



So that was the cheesiest dialogue in the history of fiction? Fine. Write that down!



My first drafts are filled with random notes like:


– “Come up with something less cliché here.”

– “Make this less melodramatic.”

– “Need this to be funnier” / “more intense” / “creepier” / whatever.

– “Need to research this!”

– “Make this scene less terrible.”



That way the Inner Editor knows that I’m listening—I hear you!—and that I will come back and fix this. Later. Like, during revisions, when it’s time to start fixing stuff.




Strategy #3: Always keep moving forward.


Sometimes I might go back and read the last chapter I wrote so I can refresh my memory of what happened and where the characters were when I left off, but that’s it. I don’t go back and read anything else when I’m working on the first draft. I just keep pushing through until I hit the end.



That said, oftentimes I’ll realize that something needs to change in an earlier scene. Just like with leaving myself ‘internal editor’ notes, I’ll  leave myself a note for these changes too. I might go write it down in the chapter that needs to change, or I’ll keep a separate file with a running list of things that need to change in revisions. Things like: “Insert the villain into chapter 3 so they can overhear the conversation between hero and heroine” or “Show early on that the protagonist has a black belt in karate so the final fight scene isn’t so random” or “you know what, let’s make this character an only child—delete all mentions of their older brother!”



Once I’ve noted something to change in revisions, I continue right where I left off, but I write it as if I’d already made the change.



Strategy #4: Skip Stuff


I used to be a very lineal writer. I started on page one and wrote straight on through to the end. No more! While I still try to write as lineally as possible, if I find myself getting stuck, I’m totally okay with skipping the scene that’s giving me a hard time and move on to something I’m really excited about. Oftentimes having some space from that tricky scene will help me figure out what wasn’t working with it.



And besides, progress is progress is progress. If you need to jump to the romantic kissing scene or the epic conclusion scene so you can hit your word quota for the day, power to you. Just keep writing!



The Most Important Thing About the First Draft


Finish it.


Finish it, finish it, finish it.




So that you know you can.


Finishing stuff is hard, and there’s always a shiny new idea ready to coax you away. But finishing that first draft is an accomplishment that can never be taken away from you.



Also, it will give you something to work with in revisions… which I’ll talk about next week!



On NaNoWriMo


I love-love-love NaNoWriMo. Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, Fairest, and Heartless all started life as NaNo novels, and if I can swing it, I’ll be drafting the first book of my superhero series this November, too. *fingers crossed*



The goal of NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month) is to challenge yourself to write a 50,000 word novel during the 30 days of November. They also do Camp NaNo during the summer for people who struggle to join in during November. Hundreds of thousands of people participate each year, and it makes for a really fun, supportive community. It’s nice to know that you’re not all alone in this crazy world of noveling. Plus they have neat things like graphs that let you chart your progress and pep talks from really awesome authors. (Such as this one. *cough*)



The great thing about NaNo: It gives you the goal. It gives you the deadline. All you have to do is hunker down and write.




If you’re the type that thrives on friendly competition, I highly recommend giving it a shot. You have about six weeks to plan. 😉


  1. M. H. Afa commented on:

    I’m a linear writer, who always wrote from start to finish. Until now. I didn’t even know you could skip scenes! I usually have the future scenes written out in an extensive list/outline form. But lately I’ve been writing out scenes that keep playing over in my head and I put that separate from the writing done so far. It something I’ve never down, but just started doing recently with my stories. I really believed that if I didn’t write linearly, the story would not go as planned, or leading up to certain scenes written earlier wouldn’t fit, if different ideas developed along the way. So I’ve decided to do both now while I write my first drafts! Thank you, Ms. Meyer! And I am so looking forward to NaNaWriMo this year!

  2. Rachel commented on:

    They do Camp NaNo for adults? I did not know that. I’m doing the full fifty thousand in the young writers program. I absolutely hate the checkbox in the real NaNo site that says you have to be thirteen. Why can’t I be a year older? NOT FAIR. At least the young writers have a wicked website. So I’m jealous. So for all you people how are like me and are ranting about not being able to do NaNo here’s the link:
    (You can so this as long as you are under eighteen. I personally call this website NaNo for cheaters under eighteen You can change your word goal to whatever you want. I’m going to try to make a point and go for 55,000.)

    Happy NaNoWriMo to those who are competing and good luck!

  3. Aimee commented on:

    I finished my first novel during Camp NaNoWriMo this July and it was so worth it! Having a deadline and a word quota really motivated me. I’d really love to do Nano this November, but I’m starting college and don’t want to screw up my first semester, lol. I might stick to Camp or try November next year.

    I’m considering a possibly insane plan. I want to finish 3 drafts a summer (about 1 a month). I’d then spent the school year revising them. I’ve actually managed to finish 3 drafts this summer (1 I was working on earlier and put on the back burner during Camp Nano, then finished after, and I’m on schedule to finish a 3rd before school starts in October) and have learned that I can finish a draft in a month. I think I can do it, but do you think this is too much? Thanks again so much for this series, all these posts have been so helpful! 😀

  4. Janine commented on:

    I like writing fast. In fact, I like it so much I’m aiming for 50k words in two days this November.
    50k words in a month really don’t challenge my anymore – I can easily meet that goal while watching lots of Let’s Play’s and not focussing on the story. (That’s what I did in August.) Therefore, I learned that I need a goal I have to work for to reach it. Without that challenge writing is less fun to me. (Maybe I should write a story in English sometime, 1667 english words a day would be very hard for me to reach. Or I just wouldn’t care about grammar and spelling anymore and wouldn’t be able to reread that story.)

    Six weeks to plan? I might need at least five of them to find out which story I’m going to write. Plus, I wanted to rewrite another story until then (so I could write the sequel after those two days) but I still need to polish the outline I’m working on since August Camp is over. Yet, I might try out your outlining method if I know which idea I’m going to use. If I don’t find time to do that (or motivation) I’ll have to pants like I normally do in November.
    My drafts tend to be 120k or more words, so I don’t often finish stories during NaNo. I never finished one in November but several shorter stories (about 65k-75k words, I guess) during Camps.

    I hope you’ll be able to reach your goal in November! Good luck and have fun!

  5. Alexa Lee commented on:

    Hello Marissa! I’m a reader from Taiwan and I just want to say that thank you so much for this series of writing tips! I have some questions, please forgive me if I make some mistakes!

    1. How long did it take you to research/brainstorm? Did you stop searching when you felt like it’s time?
    2. How many plots are in one chapter? I mean, how many plots do one chapter needs?

    I hope you can understand what I’m trying to say! lol
    Thanks again for these awesome tips! =)

  6. Your Name commented on:

    Did you just say SUPERHERO story? I think I’m in love!

    I usually use a notebook for my first draft, because my writing is much faster than my typing. That way, if I get stuck, i can start editing the beginning to help me find a way through my standstill. There are so many things on the margins of my stories, its hard to keep track sometimes what is actually part of the story. If I have a picture come in my head, or my fingers need a different set of motions, I sometimes doodle in the margins. Most of the time I write is the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep and therefore figured out dialogue for the next scene. I am an extremely linear person and for me if my ideas for exactly how things will go down gets too far ahead of my writing, I lose interest in the part before and may lose interest in the story. So thanks for the pep talk saying I can skip things.

    Thanks so much for helping me get more interested in reading and in turn, writing.


  7. adele commented on:

    WOW. I love this post. super helpful because im on draft 1 too! 😉 Well technically on the idea process. Rachel: I agree. They need a site for twelvies. Like us! LOVE, LOVE all these tips. XD

  8. Emily commented on:

    How long have you been doing Nano? Also, what is the highest number of words you have done in Nano?

  9. Ng Jing Zhi commented on:

    Thank you so much for taking time to give writing advice! I’m currently working on a story and it’s helping me along really well. I also have another story which I really want to work on, but somehow the ideas couldn’t seem to flow and I think I’ve been stifling it and not giving it enough space to grow. I now feel growing excitement to get back to writing that story 😀

  10. Eliza commented on:

    Your process so far is almost identical to mine! It’s nice to know I’m not the only crazy. Ha.

  11. Sara commented on:

    You and I are going to be NaNoWriMo buddies! I’m taking on the vampire story that’s been in my head for five years. I hope your prepared to be beat. #allthelove

  12. Lena commented on:

    This is awesome. I published my first novel last year and am working on a new one. I write slowish first drafts, maybe 2 months for each one, and maybe 1000 words a day.

  13. Ishika commented on:

    Hey, Ms. Meyer! I have heard amazing things about your books, and I am about to go and buy CINDER, but my dad has put me on a special less-book-buying restriction! I would just like to tell you that one the Young Writers Program for NaNoWriMo, I aimed higher for 50K … and my novel is still going around Christmas, for 70K!!! Thank you for telling me you could skip scenes that you find stalling. It’ll save me a ton of time!

    Instead of Scrivener, I use what Anid suggested: yWriter5. yWriter is a 4/5, Scrivener is a 5/5.

    What font did you write this blog in? 🙂 Just Curious!

    Thanks for reading,
    A Younger Writer

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  15. Sarah commented on:

    “Once I’ve noted something to change in revisions, I continue right where I left off, but I write it as if I’d already made the change.”

    This was a most helpful piece of advice for me. It’s so easy to get bogged down and feel trapped by what you’ve written so far – I need to realise I am not writing in blood! I also get carried away going back and over editing sentences, so much so that I make no progress word count wise, I’ve never actually completed a full first draft and I think it is the pesky inner editor you speak of who hinders me! I’m strapping that asshole to a chair in a different room the next time I sit down to write!

    Thank you so much for sharing your writing process – you are amazing!

  16. Ishama commented on:

    This is so helpful and inspiring! Really needed this!
    I participated in nano this year but made it till around just 12000 words. But I’m still glad I tried I loved every stressing moment of it!

  17. Stephanie commented on:

    Hey Marissa!
    Reading this has been so helpful to me, especially since I really needed help with outlining and all that stuff. Your process is WAY different than mine. It’s almost exactly the opposite, actually. XD
    I write super super slow. I’m halfway through my first draft, and it took me nearly five months. The thing is with me, I edit along the way. I can’t let myself move on in my story until I fix something I don’t like. So by the time I’m done with the “first draft”, it’s more like the seventh or the eighth.
    It’s awesome seeing someone else’s way of writing so I know where I’m going with mine.
    (P.S. love your books!)

  18. Rosemarie commented on:

    Hello Mrs. Meyer!
    Just to start with, I love all of your books – I ate up Heartless and am working on reading Renegades! If you have any posts or advice for my following, ah, problem? please let me know! My friend convinced me to write one story, which lead to another, which lead to another…the problem is, none of the first drafts have gotten finished! That’s partially why I chose the first drafts of your series on writing to say something. I have five stories in the works – yes, five – but keep getting lost, lose motivation, or have thought up too complex stories to keep each of them straight and continue writing. Any help? Oh, and everyone else can chime in too- as it’s summer, I want to get some writing done, and any advice would be lovely. Thank you for your time!!

  19. Lily Belle commented on:

    This is so helpful! I have been working on a fairy tale remix- style story, and I keep getting stuck and don’t know how to move forward, so it’s helpful to know skipping is an option. I’ve never done it before. I love your books, and they have inspired me to start my writing career. Hopefully, I will get on track and publish my book before I graduate high school (I’m 13).

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