How to Finish Your First Draft: A Quick Guide

It’s a big accomplishment. Here’s how to get it done.

So you have a work in progress. Congratulations! You started a thing and you are very excited about what the future holds for your new baby — I mean story.

But here’s the problem … you haven’t actually worked on it in a while. Or you have been working on it consistently, but slowly. You’re kind of stuck, but also kind of not. You know where your story is going or where you want it to go and you COULD sit down and finish it.

But you’re struggling. Something keeps getting in your way. And now you’re starting to wonder if finishing this thing you started is even something you WANT to do anymore. Is it worth your time? Your energy? Your sanity?

So you’ve started a first draft, and you desperately want to finish it. Good news: I’ve been there. I’m currently there. I have been stuck and am currently stuck. I’ve personally developed some strategies that have helped me inch closer to — and many times, succeed in reaching — the finish line. And now, dear writers, I pass them on to you.

The following tips, of course, assume you have already started writing a first draft and just need some extra pushes to nudge you closer (and hopefully over) the finish line. If you’re stuck at the starting line (understandable — it happens to the best of us), start with my tips for writers who want to write things but are afraid of failing.

Already started but need some motivation to keep going? Don’t worry. I’ve got you.

Create a distraction-free writing space — or as close to one as possible. 

Saturday mornings are by far my most productive writing windows. The dog naps after our walk, the world is relatively quiet, and there’s no day job to “distract” me from my work. I’ve recently consumed copious amounts of caffeine and have ideally gone for a run and I’m full of endorphins (and other chemicals) and I’m ready to go. I sit down, put my noise-canceling headphones on, and I try to get at least a few solid hours of work in. Usually, it happens, and I’m happy.

An ideal writing environment is not just about a location but also a space in time. Only you know your daily schedule and when it is and isn’t possible for you to write throughout your likely busy week. It’s up to you to identify your peak writing windows (ideal writing times) and turn those into appointments during which only writing happens.

Will there be interruptions beyond your control? Absolutely. Someone will call you, the dog will have to go out, you’ll realize halfway through writing your blog post that you forgot to turn the dryer on after putting your wet clothes in it and you’ll have to break your flow and get up and hit the button and it will take you forever to jump back into what you were doing. But these things happen. You have to keep writing anyway.

Don’t worry about writing ‘perfectly.’ Just write.

This advice is difficult for the majority of aspiring writers to grasp, and I understand why. We don’t want to feel like we are wasting our time working on something that might not turn out the way we want or produce the results we want. We don’t want to have to go back and fix things. We want to do this challenging, draining writing thing once and be done with it forever because we’re impatient and just want to move on to the next thing.

Truth time: That’s not going to happen. Writing is not a “one and done” activity. A first draft is SUPPOSED to be terrible. That is the point. Your only goal is to get the story out so you have something to work with, something to fix up and turn into a real, marketable product.

Some will argue — and have argued with me, quite unkindly — that you should never write when you’re incapable of doing your “best” work. I always come back with the argument that your “best work” changes constantly. What you’re capable of accomplishing today may not match what you were able to do yesterday. That’s OK, as long as you’re trying to do SOMETHING. Is bad writing acceptable? Yes. In the first draft. Always. How else are you going to learn what bad writing looks and feels like?

Here’s my take on this issue, whether you’re new to this blog or need a quick refresher. Writing a first draft should not be about writing well. I don’t care if you’re just writing for yourself or you’re working on something you want thousands of people to see. No one should ever see your first draft until it’s finished, if at all.

This means that you should be allowed to make all the mistakes you want to make. You should be able to write when you’re tired, when you have a cluttered mind, when you’re not at your best. Why? Because if you save all your writing for when you’re “feeling good,” you’re never going to get past the first draft stage. Maybe you don’t care about that, and I suppose that’s your call. But if you’re reading this post, I hope it’s because you’re genuinely interested in finishing what you started. That’s what I’m here for. To help you, you know. Do the work.

“Just write” is everyone’s least favorite advice, I know. It’s vague, it’s hard to execute, and people want to be given some magic formula to make it easier. They’re not going to find one. If you want to “have written,” you first need to “write.” It doesn’t matter when or where or how you do it as long as you DO IT.

Keep in mind that finishing a first draft should come before significant edits.

The house building metaphor is by far my favorite way to discourage people from editing as they are writing their first draft. Imagine you’re building a house. Normally when you’re doing this you take it one stage at a time. First you build the foundation and the outer frame, then you finish off the structure so it doesn’t fall down when it’s windy or whatever, you make it safe and suitable to live in structurally and THEN you get to do all the fun stuff, like painting and picking out countertops and whatever else real adults do when they’re designing their dream home.

Here’s what you DON’T do: You DON’T build, design, paint, and furnish a house one room at a time. You DON’T see one room through to completion before even building the foundation to support the next one. You do the hardest part first — constructing the framework and making sure it’s not all going to fall apart. AND THEN YOU GET TO PICK OUT THE COUNTERTOPS.

You cannot edit one chapter of a book to perfection if you haven’t even written the next one yet. You have no idea what the next chapter is going to look like. You’re just going to end up changing things along the way and you’re going to have to go back and redo parts of that first chapter. It’s going to cost you more time and energy in the end than it would have if you’d just written the entire first draft FIRST.

You still with me? Good. Just one more helpful hint to keep you on the fast track to Finished Land.

Fill up those pages one at a time until the story is finished.

You know what doesn’t get a novel written? Sitting in front of your laptop thinking about what you’re going to do next. Again, there are plenty of people who are going to push back on this advice, and that’s fine, but hear me out.

The more you write, the better the story flows. As you write, you are already thinking about the next sentence you are going to type. Your brain and hands get into a rhythm and it’s very possible your brain is at least two or three lines ahead of the words you’ve actually written. How does that work? Brain magic — the science isn’t important right now. Writers are word wizards, they just do things other people can’t do. That’s why they’re so awesome.

The only way to finish a story is to write the story and continue writing it, word by word, page by page, until it’s done. Is this an easy task? No. Is it always fun? No. First drafts are challenging. That’s why not everyone who has tried has managed to write one. You have to keep pushing through everything that will try to stop you — especially the doubt and worry and fear — and just keep writing anyway. Because that’s how first drafts get done. It is the ONLY way they get done.

There is no set formula you can apply to your work to make sure it always gets done. You have to take what’s here and apply it to your life and workflow — that’s the one thing I cannot do for you. Every writer’s spaces and schedules looks different. That’s the fun of it. We all have the same general goals, but our own ways of achieving those goals.

As long as you write with the aim of finishing, and you do the best you can to reach that finish line, you’re doing just fine. Congratulations. You’re trying, you’re making an effort. You’re the best. Now finish your book or whatever. You can do it. I believe in you.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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