How to Write a Finished First Draft
Writing is fun, editing…not so much. Going back and looking at those words you forced out while trying to get through your first draft can make you feel terrible at your craft. I can’t think of a more demotivating, soul-crushing activity for a writer to experience.
What if you could write a clean and finished first draft? No need to go back and spend weeks or months editing. One and done. It’s not only possible; it’s essential if you self-publish your work or if you write for pure enjoyment.
I love writing stories. Giving my characters room to exist is one of the most exciting things I do. But I once wrote a book — a shitty first draft — that I hated going back to edit. I hated it so much that I put it off for two years. Writing the first draft was great fun because I didn’t have to care about the quality of my writing.
The following two years felt like a slog as I worked through edits of my 50k word draft.
Then I learned that there are authors, like Dean Wesley Smith, who write over a million finished words a year. A million. Finished, meaning edited and publishable. That’s twenty novels in a year!
Have you ever been disheartened and motivated at the same time?
I didn’t believe it was possible. And if you follow traditional writing advice, like writing shitty first drafts, it’s not.
I studied how authors like Dean Wesley Smith and Michael La Ronn edited their work so quickly and made the switch myself. I’ve never looked back. I even use it for my article writing. Over the last few months, this method has multiplied my output a hundredfold.
What going back to edit a terrible first draft tells your subconscious
When you write new words, you are using the creative side of your brain. The playful side. This is the side that houses our intuition and emotion. That is to say: it’s sensitive to criticism.
When you edit, you are using the analytical side of your brain. This is the side that thinks, judges, and criticizes.
The two sides of your brain are not compatible. They’re not even friends.
When you sit down to write, your creative side starts to play. It’s joyful in its work, but it requires confidence to keep at it. If it can’t be carefree — if it’s afraid that it will be criticized for how it plays — then it will want to do something else, like waste three hours on social media instead of writing.
Imagine if someone recorded a child while they played and then showed it to them later. How would they react to themselves? Worse still, what if someone pointed out specific things they did and criticized them for it? The next time the child got the opportunity to play, they wouldn’t. Not in the same way, at least.
The creative side of your brain works in the same way.
But if you set the creative side free, without fear of criticism, it’ll produce the best writing you’ve ever created.
Your analytical side, on the other hand, loves that magnifying glass. It wants to find all the flaws in what you do and fix them. If you read a negative review of your work, the analytical side of your brain is capable of finding where the review hit on some truth and help you identify your weak points. That is if it wasn’t for the creative side’s emotional rage at someone judging your work.
What’s worse, according to Dean Wesley Smith, is what your analytical side says about your writing can cause your creative side to lose confidence and throw in the towel. You’re giving yourself your own negative review! How is that helpful? How does that build your confidence in writing?
You’ve got to learn to keep the analytical side of your brain away from the work of your creative side.
The sides of your brain are not mutually exclusive
It’s impossible to shut off one side of your brain completely. When you are creating, you’re thinking; and when you’re thinking, you’re creatively coming up with options.
One side can be dominant, however, and that’s where the secret lies.
When you’re creating new words, you want your creative side to be dominant so it can play. If your analytical side is dominant while you are trying to write, you’re going to have a hard time getting those words out. Most of us call this “writer’s block.”
Unfortunately, your analytical side is better at suppressing your creative side. Not in the moment, but in the long run. It’s better if you keep the analytical side of your brain out of writing altogether. Use it when considering business decisions, like marketing your book or coming up with an automated sales funnel.
The analytical thought that goes into technical writing has no place in creative writing.
How to edit while using your creative side
I’m not advocating that you publish your shitty first draft. You still need to edit. But here’s the thing: edit while your creative side is still dominant — when it’s still playtime.
When your creative side is dominant, you can still be analytical, but it won’t ruin your confidence. Better yet, you’ll be protecting your inner creative child from criticism so it can come back and play joyfully next time.
Here’s how to do it.
Cycling back while writing
If you wait several days or even several hours before going back to your writing — after playtime has ended — your analytical brain has had time to come forward, to put a magnifying glass on your work, and criticize the hell out of it. This is the death knell to fast and fun writing.
But if you go back and edit while still writing, then that editing becomes part of your creative flow.
Dean Wesley Smith calls this method “Cycling.” It’s how he produces over a million words a year.
The way it works is you write 500 or so words, then you cycle back 1,000 words and read up to where you are, making corrections as you go. Write another 500 words, then cycle back 1,000 again. Keep this cycle going until you get to the end, and you’ll have written a clean and publishable first draft.
Why cycling works
In the short run, cycling edits your words twice. Think about it: you’re writing 500 words and then going back 1,000. Not only are you reading and editing the words you just wrote, but you’re going back and looking a third time at the previous cycle’s words.
That’s three drafts — one to write the words, then going back and editing those words twice.
Isn’t that close to the traditional writing advice?
In the long run, cycling works by protecting the creative side of your brain from criticism. When you go back and edit as part of a cycle, while it’s still playtime, you are still playing, and that’s exactly how your brain interprets it. And if you ever go back and read your twice edited work at a later date, you’ll think much better of it, building your confidence instead of crushing it.
Copyediting as a cycler
Using a tool like Grammarly at the end of your writing session is like picking up your toys after playtime. It doesn’t seem to step on the confidence of your creative side. I’ve noticed that Grammarly builds my confidence when I turn it on because all of that cycling back and correcting my work gives me a Grammarly score of 98 or 99 before I make any of its recommended corrections.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a pantser or a plotter
Whether you put a character in a situation and start the cycling process or of you spend time outlining your story in advance, the process of using cycling to edit your work in the same session is similar.
Dean Wesley Smith will say that cycling works best — and all writing, really — if you pants it, but I’ve used this process with plotting, and it worked just as well. The only downside to plotting is that the time you spend on your outline could be used to write a whole novel! But some outliners need that pre-planning to get them going. In this case, cycling will make you faster than most pantsers because you won’t have to go back and painstakingly edit multiple drafts.
If you are going to self-publish to make money, or you want to get more enjoyment out of the writing process, incorporate cycling into your writing habit. Michael La Ronn uses this technique to write prolifically despite working a full-time job, and Dean Wesley Smith writes over a million finished words a year with it.