NaNo Tip No. 2: The Zen of First (Zero) Drafts

This is the most important tip of all: It’s only a first draft, it doesn’t have to be perfect.

You know what that means? You can relax. A first draft can be bad. In fact, it will be bad. Don’t worry about it. Plow on. Don’t even think of it as a first draft. That’s too much pressure, not to mention insulting to first drafts, think of it as your zero draft.

That’s what I do.

I get a lot of people asking for tips for dealing with writer’s block. I don’t get writer’s block. But only because I’ve learned not to be bothered by writing utter, utter rubbish.1 I expect my zero draft to be the worst writing in the history of writing thus when it turns out shockingly badly, I am unconcerned. “Why, yes, it is rubbish. No matter, that’s what I was going for.”

I write myself out of trouble,2 but that also mean I write myself into trouble: my zero drafts are full of insanely repetitive passages, and thus full of redundancies. Here is a short example:

Even though he’d now taken it away I could still feel the warmth of where his thumb had briefly brushed against my shoulder.

In the final version it became this:

I felt warmth where his thumb had been.

I have no idea how many drafts the novel went through before that slim sentence emerged from the bloated one. Lots.

I also usually wind up writing something like this at least once in the course of a zero draft:

She wasn’t sure what she was doing there. What was the point? Maybe he wouldn’t meet her after all. She should have stayed in class. She should never have answered the phone. Or talked to him. Or agreed to meet him. Or been born. Why was she here? Why wasn’t she doing something more productive? Somewhere else?

In the final version it looks like this:

. . .

Yup, that’s right, deleted, gone, wiped out, obliterated, not in the book. And if I were writing the preceding sentence in a novel I’d probably pare it down and all. Unless I was going for the laughs. Sometimes repetition can be funny. But only if used sparingly.

So, there you have it my tip is to have fun with your first draft and don’t worry about writing rubbish. Expect it! You can fix it later.

Disclaimer: If this advice doesn’t work for you and you keep getting stuck it could be that you’re an outliner. Down tools and start outlining. But don’t ask me for advice on how to do that cause I have no idea. However, I suspect that once you’ve outlined and start writing your first draft then the above advice may well apply.

Good luck!

  1. Also I don’t get paid if I don’t write. []
  2. As opposed to stopping working and thinking my way out or outlining the next few chapters. []


  1. Becca on #

    Yea! I think the best thing I’ve done for myself (writing-wise) is given myself permission to write crappy first drafts. I love the idea of Zero-Draft. I’m trying NaNo for my first time – so far, so good! Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. El on #

    Nora Roberts calls it the “discovery draft.” I like that term.

  3. Julie on #

    Thanks for this, giving myself permission to write the worst first draft ever was the best thing I ever did 😉

  4. Cyndy Otty on #

    I think very often the idea that what you write HAS to be good is what stops a lot of people from attempting. They feel that writing something that isn’t perfect is just a waste of time and so never bother.

    I’ve seen a lot of potential Wrimos (and writers in general) bow out of the challenge because of exactly this.

  5. wandering-dreamer on #

    I’ve discovered from the short stories I’ve written before that I do TONS of editting/cutting/moving from the first draft to the second draft so my idea is to write it all out, every last semi-interesting detail, and then go after it with a hack saw. But I do want my stuff to be semi-good at least, but Nano is about quantity not quality….
    Bah, I’ll just go write, write now think later.

  6. Stephanie on #

    I love NaNoWriMo, as well as all books written by you and Scott Westerfeld. The combination of the two makes me very happy.

  7. sonia on #

    that’s very good advice.
    i work in interior design and when i was starting out would often get too attached to my space plans to make changes or be overwhelmed with trying to do it perfectly the first time. since those days i’ve learned that the first plan, even later when one is approved, it’s never final. knowing it’s not final makes it free and allows more evolution as you go along.

  8. Alexa on #

    I love the phrase zero draft and I am most definitely writing one!

  9. Carole on #

    I try Nano for the first time, and god, I need that advice, but mostly, know how not to be obsessed by the fact I think what I write is bad. It’s really hard!

  10. The OTHER Tally Youngblood on #

    WOW That sounds so much like me! I got the writing tips from ur husband. (Hence my username being from one of his characters.) Anyway, I’m way too descriptive and I end up writing millions of sentences! Justlike now. I’m bieng to descriptive about me bieng descriptive! (pardon the typos. I suck about spelling today.) G2GI’ve been procrastionating WAY too much this afternoon. I spend my life on author’s blogs OK! Is that a crime?! JK. BYE ^_^ 😀 P.S: Love how the thing above me types what my post will look like! G2G And this time I hope I mean it! 😀 ^_^

  11. gabfra on #

    good tip! I usually find myself writing things that don’t make sense, problem is I don’t even know where to start sometimes. But its fun. Just writing one sentence and see where your imagination takes you.

  12. Alexandra on #

    That is very good advice. I have never though of doing a draft like that, never. Thanks for that.

  13. Amber on #

    Wow, that sounds like my first draft! Well, this gives me hope anyways. I am just writing for fun as of now, because I do have another career and want to have a great story before even trying to enter the publishing world. But thanks for the tips! This makes me think it’s possible… just tons more months with revisions.

  14. Robin on #

    Thank you so much! This is very helpful advice. I have already started just writing without really thinking about it. I can’t wait to hear the rest of the advice that comes out of these blogs!

  15. mpe on #

    I used to suffer from writer’s block, and it was *always* because I was fighting the story. Now I don’t fight it, and I’m never blocked.

    This does mean that my dark vicious thrillers turn into cute little fairy-tale skits, and vice versa. And on days when the story doesn’t want to get written, it doesn’t get written.

    But I’m no longer blocked.


    (Also, bad first drafts aren’t a problem. But if you’re regularly binning the lot and starting fresh – not just once, either – then motivation may suffer. Says she who knows.)

  16. Thomas on #

    This is my first NaNo and I am up for all the tips and tricks, as I fully intend to work this first novel into something I might actually feel comfortable submitting. Looking forward to the rest of your posts throughout the month. Thanks.

  17. Kit Berry on #

    Great advice and just how I write! Zero draft is a brilliant term and an excellent way of taking the pressure away from that blank screen. I loved seeing your amendments, especially the second one. Another point to make – I’ve heard many would-be writers getting stuck on endlessly redrafting the first chapter before they feel able to move onto the next. No! Your advice applies to the whole thing, or at least a big chunk of it. I’ve found that the first chapter is the thing that benefits most from brutal editing once the whole book is written, because everything has changed by the end. So whatever you write for the first chapter is going to be wrong, and redrafting it too early is a waste of time. IMHO. Thanks for a good article.

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