How to Write a Clean First Draft

Puppy BathI had to open my big mouth, didn’t I?

A few weeks back, in the response to a comment on one of my posts here at IU, I remarked that I save a lot of time in the editing phase by writing “really clean first drafts.” Of course, somebody had to go and ask me how I do it.

That meant I had to deconstruct how I do what I do. First, I found a calm, quiet place, and sat there with a meditation pillow and a candle, and communed with my muse for a while. Then I had a glass of wine. Okay, maybe I had more than one glass of wine. Anyway, I came away from it all with the conclusion that it’s a whole host of things. Here, as best as I can, is my prescription for writing a clean first draft.

First, I write my manuscripts in Word for several reasons. One is that I know it best – I’ve used it for at least fifteen years and I’ve received a ton of training on it through my day job. Yes, it’s a pain in the patootie in many respects, and for authors, it’s a little like using a blowtorch to open a can of olives – it’s got a lot of firepower we don’t need. But writing in Word from the get-go saves me a step when it’s time to send my WIP to reviewers, because just about everybody’s got Word. And a .docx file that has always been in Word plays nicely with Mr. Coker’s Meatgrinder, KDP’s conversion system, and CreateSpace.

Moreover, you can set-and-forget your formatting in Word. I covered how to do that last year, when I wrote about using Styles to your advantage. Do yourself a favor and set up a Style right now that passes the Meatgrinder’s sniff test.

Go on. I’ll wait.

Done? Okay. Now, I also wrote about setting up a template in Word last year. But to be honest, using the template turned out to be more trouble than it was worth for me. Instead, I’ve modified my Heading 2 style so that “Style for following paragraph” is set to the manuscript paragraph style that I created. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? You didn’t read my post on Styles, did you?) So when I bring up a new page, I click on the Heading 2 style, type in my chapter number, hit enter, and away we go. Simple.

But wait – there’s more. I also outline my books, sorta-kinda. There’s an outlining style called “beats” which I fell into before I knew what it was called. David Gaughran blogged about beat-style outlines last year (and I talked about it on my own blog, too.) Essentially, you don’t have to outline every jot and tittle of your story; instead, you write a paragraph for each chapter, more or less, about where you intend for your story to go in that chapter. Sometimes my beats aren’t very detailed, and sometimes the scenes I end up writing deviate a lot. Here, in its entirety, is the beat I wrote for the night-before-the-denouement of Crosswind:

“The big weekend arrives.  Darrell spends the night before with his ex-wife at her hotel room, and tells her to look for him at the event.  That same night, Sue’s group gets together and prepares for their ritual.  Tess — hmm.  Can’t sleep. Comes to some big realization.”

In the book, Darrell did spend the night with his ex-wife, but I moved both the preparation for Sue’s ritual and Tess’s big realization to the morning of the event. But writing that beat gave the bones of the story.

Writing beats also tells me where I’m going. I can spot plot holes before I get to them. And I don’t end up writing a lot of extra stuff that I have to cut later.

The final thing I do is going to rub some people the wrong way, so I apologize in advance: I pay attention to spelling, grammar, and punctuation as I’m writing the first draft. It’s a holdover from my days in radio, when I would have ten minutes to write a five-minute newscast. There was no time for multiple editing passes. Heck, there wasn’t even time for one editing pass – first draft and on the air, baby! Of course, spelling isn’t a big deal for radio copy, unless you’re writing it for someone else. But if you screw up the grammar or the punctuation, you’re going to sound like a doofus. So you learn not to do it.

Money PillsThe fewer the mistakes you make in your first draft, the less your editor has to clean up for you later – which allows him or her to concentrate on the kind of higher-level stuff that will make your book awesome.

So that’s it. That’s my prescription for writing really clean first drafts: I get out of my own way as much as possible. Take two and call me in the morning.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

42 thoughts on “How to Write a Clean First Draft”

  1. Great post, Lynne. We have a very similar process. “The final thing I do is going to rub some people the wrong way, so I apologize in advance: I pay attention to spelling, grammar, and punctuation as I’m writing the first draft.” Me, too. That’s why it takes me so very long to write a book, but for whatever reason, it just works best for me to do it this way.

    1. Thanks, Melinda. The way I see it, the fewer errors I introduce into the thing to start with, the fewer I have to catch on the editing pass. That *has* to save time — not to mention headaches. 🙂

  2. Excellent post, Lynne, and I appreciate the links back to the other helpful posts too.

    My latest issue/concern (I’m sure my writing has many but this is the one I’m concentrating on resolving at the moment) is tense. When I’m writing a scene, because I’m thinking of what’s happened in the past and what will happen in the future, my tenses seem to get gobbleydegooked. In fact, even when I edit, I feel like once or twice the tense change has gotten past me.

    I shall try and keep your radio experience in my noggin’ when I’m writing because tense change in news would be dire!

    1. Thanks, Jo!

      I feel your pain, a little bit, when it comes to verb tense. Radio news copy is written in present tense, so that it sounds more up-to-the-minute. 😀 So I kind of had to re-learn how to write in past tense when I went back to writing fiction. Sometimes I dither over “had” and “had had”. 😉

  3. Great post Lynne, thanks. I agree about paying attention to spelling etc. Working with a dedicated critique group took care of all that before I published. What a win! Each of the five of us had the pages in front of them and were great “spotters” of all important aspects of grammar and more. I’ve struggled with Word, but have Scrivener and have to plunge into the learning curve one of these days. IU is just fabulous with posts like these.

    1. You’re welcome, Ester. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Scrivener, but Word works for me (now that I’ve beaten it into submission over the years 😀 ) and I’m hesitant to take the time to learn another program.

  4. Thanks, Lynne. I also write in Word and try to catch grammar ans spelling as i go. I miss a lot of those but most get caught in the second draft. I still need to get up to speed on the Styles thingy, though. Sigh.

  5. Thanks, Lynne! While I try not to fuss with grammar and spelling on the first draft, I have been using beats and LOVE it! For me, it has all the good points of outlining without that itchy, hemmed in feeling.

  6. I like the idea of writing bits quite a lot. The process of writing and re-writing (and then re-writing) my first novel has shown me that I’m better served to do a bit more plotting in advance. Thanks for the links to the other posts as well.

  7. Ah, at last I don’t have to feel guilty about cleaning up as I type! I just cannot stop myself. It works for me. I sleep knowing I do not have a gremlin to face in the morning. Thanks for interesting post and links, Lynne.

  8. Great ideas, Lynne. I like the idea of “beats.” I had never called it that, but I do find it helpful to give a sentence explainer for chapters to come. It helps me get where I’m going. I need to actually do that for my WIP, which I started a long time ago (before I did my sentence “beats”), but am now getting back to. I think that will help me get it finished.

    I always write in word, but I can’t say I pay tons of attention to grammar. I don’t intentionally misspell things, but I’m not reading over every paragraph as I write to check for typos/errors. I do like to read what I wrote the previous day (at least the last few paragraphs of it) before starting the new day’s work, so I’ll correct any errors I see when I do that read through. But, I feel very comfortable with my first draft being just that. It’s my coal that I’ll eventually exert enough pressure on to form a diamond. 🙂

  9. I really like this, Lynne – sound common sense. The proofread-as-you-write thing isn’t full-proof, but if I read through the few sentences I’ve just written while I’m thinking about how to structure the next few sentences, all kinds of typos can be caught and dealt with on the spot.

  10. Love the meditation pillow & wine comment 🙂 I like the beat thingy, too. I write a pretty clean draft, at least for typos and most grammar (yeah, yeah, I’ve been known to dangle a modifier or two…or three. Just ask Laurie), so writing takes me longer, too. What I would give to be able to get that 1st draft down in days rather than weeks (lots of weeks)…Maybe I’ll try your beats. Couldn’t hurt…

  11. I like when someone tells me what I’ve been doing – I’ve been writing beats!
    I don’t stress over the first draft, but I think my first drafts are getting cleaner with each new manuscript.
    Great post.

  12. We’re birds of a feather, Lynne. But when I’m finished, my clean draft is still a rough draft. Or, as it’s sometimes called, a workable draft–which to me is an oxymoron. Just once I’d like to write a book that didn’t require major revisions. Wish there were a Word program for that…

    In regard to grammar and punctuation, it’s sound practice to write properly from the outset. Some good habits are worth establishing right away.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks, Linda. And I’m not saying my first drafts are perfect — far from it. But the big-stuff editing is certainly easier when the nitpicky stuff is already taken care of. 🙂

  13. Another one here who edits as I go. Explains why I’m the opposite of prolific, though, I’m sure.

    Oh, and to the following…

    “The fewer the mistakes you make in your first draft, the less your editor has to clean up for you later – which allows him or her to concentrate on the kind of higher-level stuff that will make your book awesome.”

    I’d add…

    “…and cost less to edit.”

  14. Lynne, great post. I agree 100% with writing as clean as you can from the get-go, including all punctuation, grammar, etc. I actually do very little re-writing; I figure when I’m done with my first draft, I’m about 95% there. I might tweak a little here or there, but nothing major. I’ve never used the beats, tho; might have to try that. I usually just make a bullet list of major plot points. Great stuff here; thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Melissa. 🙂

      Bullet list, outline, beats — whichever you use and whatever you call it, the result is the same: a road map for your WIP. I know some people like to take the scenic route, and that’s fine. But personally, I’d rather get the thing done. 🙂

  15. Lynne, I loved this post. That’s the way I wrote my first two books. Try as I might, I cannot let go of that style. And speaking of styles, thanks for including links to your former posts. I’m going to print those off. Just when I finally solved the mysteries of using Word on my PC at work, I then got a Mac at home and am starting all over again as Word for Mac is different. God, I am a technology nimcompoop…. (Posts like these are therefore really appreciated!)

    1. You’re not a nincompoop, Dianne. I would have a tough time navigating Word on a Mac. It’s bad enough switching from one version of Word to another. 😛

  16. I /think/ I write something like beats, but for me the process is much less formal. I use a dedicated writer’s software package called StoryBox which automatically organises my writing into chapters and scenes. But because it’s a database rather than a wordprocessor, I can move whole scenes [and chapters] around very easily, which allows me to restructure the story with a simple mouse click.
    The best part, however, is that StoryBox automatically creates a navigation pane of chapter and scene headings for me. Thus I can see a quick and dirty outline at all times. That, in turn, allows me to write chapters/scenes completely out of ‘order’. When I get an idea, I plonk it down and decide where to put it later.
    I guess StoryBox is the organisational tool for pantsters who don’t want to get organised. lol

  17. Excellent article, Lynne, and I think I’m a kinda mishmash of all the ‘sort as you go’ types, read aloud what you’ve written the previous writing session and correct before moving on kinda thing. I’m still always amazed at how much I miss though. Oh, and I wouldn’t dream of using anything else but word, with templates.

  18. I tend to write and repair as I go along. Also, to make sure it sounds OK and isn’t repetitive, I use the “speak” program and walk around while listening to what I’ve written. I love it, and am in heaven since I also started using “Dragon Dictation” to write emails, and more. It’s getting used to my South African/British accent and making fewer and fewer mistakes. Try it! BTW, I typed this one—fast, and keys always get missed for some reason. Should have used “dictation—drat!
    Lots of great comments here…

  19. I’d like to write a cleaner first draft too. Way to much hair pulling in the next draft. I’m trying to write beats ahead of what I’m writing but keep forgetting to do them before I start writing new words. Thanks for the reminder and I must get my styles in order. 🙂

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