One Trick That Helps Me Finish First Drafts

I’ve shared this with other writers before, and I’ve been told it was helpful. For some it might seem obvious, and I’m sure some variant is standard operating procedure for many. Still, this technique is a primary reason I’m able to finish my awful first drafts. I use it for both short stories and novels, and I’m sure you’re clever enough to find more applications.

Years ago, I was newly married and attending graduate school–perfect time to start a novel, right?

I obsessively outlined the entire book. I wrote and rewrote the first chapter a dozen times. When I finally made progress, I went back and rewrote that first chapter again and again.

I’m still married, and eventually I graduated. But I never finished the first draft of that novel.

We could argue it was the wrong time to start a book, or my detailed outlines killed my creativity. After all, I knew how it ended, so where was the fun in getting to the end? But this post isn’t “Outlining vs. Flying by the Seat of your Pants.”

Back at the time, I was obsessed with the story of Orpheus. For the unfamiliar, Orpheus descended into the underworld to rescue his lost love, Eurydice. He’s told she will follow him back to the surface as long as he doesn’t look back. Just before he reaches the surface, he doubts and turns around, only to see Eurydice disappear back into the abyss.

These themes even worked their way into my unfinished book–but I never made the crucial connection. Just like Orpheus, I was doomed because I kept looking back.

I told you to finish the first draft!

If only he had finished his first draft!

To avoid this terrible end, I stopped looking back.

That’s very poetic, Ryan, you’re thinking. It brings a tear to my eye. But it doesn’t tell me anything. Everyone knows you have to press on through your first draft, but how did you do it?

I make a supplemental file for every short story and novel. I use Google Drive, a free service. One Note is another free option, and you may already have it on your computer. Use whatever works for you. I use Drive because it’s simple and allows me to access the file from any computer or my phone. I name my files “(Title of story) – Supplemental.”

The supplemental file is for all the things I want to go back and change, my ideas for scenes I haven’t written yet, and anything else I need to remember but I’m not writing into the novel that instant. You can also delete a section from the story but stick it in the supplemental file if you want to hold onto it.

Brilliant idea while standing in line? Put it in the file. Finishing chapter 10 but realize the perfect way to reorder the first three chapters? Put it in the file. I type it in right away, before I have a chance to forget. Middle of the night, middle of a meal, doesn’t matter. I know better than to believe I’ll remember, and a grand idea once forgotten is an immeasurable loss.

How does the supplemental file change the game? It keeps me from meddling until the first draft is done. I finish the first pass and then work through the supplemental file, making those changes one at a time.

I’ve just started revisions on another novel, and today was a perfect examples of the supplemental file’s power at work.

I realized, fifty pages into the first draft, one male character should be female. In the old days, I would have gone back and changed what had come before to make the draft cohesive. But that way lies only madness. Instead I made a note in my file: “Change childhood friend to a girl.” I named her and kept on writing as if she had been in the book all along.

Today I returned to the completed draft and changed the character in those earlier sections with ease, without losing any of my sweet, sweet momentum. What could have cost valuable writing time instead made these early revisions a treat.

During revisions, I prioritize the changes I still want to make–I usually do the largest changes first. I highlight entries in the file once I’ve implemented them and use strikethroughs to show ideas I’ve discarded. This way I remember what’s taken care of and hold onto discards in case I change my mind a second time.

This process might go against the general advice to trim at least 10% off your first draft. If it helps, consider additions made with the supplemental file to be part of Draft 1.5. After making your supplemental changes, then you can start cutting and tightening everything up.

Using a supplemental file accomplishes at least three things:

  • You plow through the first draft without losing momentum.
  • You don’t forget those beautiful ideas.
  • You don’t waste time going back to cram in terrible ideas.

It’s also good practice to keep a separate character file and, if necessary, a world building file. And don’t forget to back up your supplemental files often; they’re nearly as important as your first draft, and you should back up your first draft after every writing session.

I hope this post has been helpful and encouraging. Do you have any advice for cranking out a first draft? If so, please share in the comments below.

Remember, don’t be like Orpheus. Don’t look back. Keep looking forward to your success.

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7 thoughts on “One Trick That Helps Me Finish First Drafts

  1. That’s a quite great metaphor you got there! It’s something I learned from NaNoWriMo and the Camps: Write your first draft and ignore the editor! One of the major mistakes most of the people do is going back mid-writing to edit.

  2. Thanks for this really appreciate it! the advice for the on the go writing app for my phone. I tend to leave my house to get my ideas, rarely do I have solid ideas in front of the screen. Check out my short story on my blog if you ever feel inclined, any feedback would be appreciated Ryan.

  3. Pingback: How I Make Time to Write as a Stay-at-Home Parent | Ryan McSwain

  4. Pingback: My Most Frustrating Time Suck–Songs I Can’t Remember but Can’t Get Out of my Head | Ryan McSwain

  5. Pingback: “How Long Does It Take to Write a Novel?” | Ryan McSwain

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