Novel Writing 101: 5 Tips for Nailing the First Draft

The big moment has finally arrived. You’ve thought about characters,setting, story structure, and theme. You’ve created an outline or storyboard or list of scenes. You may even have had moments of panic, asking yourself, can I really do this? (Yes, you can!).

Now it’s time to tackle the first draft of your novel. And, might I add, perfect timing, because if you want an extra challenge and accountability, NaNoWriMo is coming up next month in November.

I always find this moment to be both exhilarating and terrifying (see my earlier post on the terror of the blank page). A blank page represents a fantastic world of possibilities, but also an entire universe of doubt. As writers, we have a glorious vision of how our stories will turn out, but there’s a disturbingly wide gap between the dream and the execution of it. What if you hit a wall? What if you can’t even get the first sentence right? What if…gasp…the entire story stinks worse than a pile of rotting trash?

Well, having written a few first drafts of my own (and enduring their foul smells), I’ve got some tips for you, along with the reality check that set me free as a writer.


Notice that bad smell in the air? (You might want a gas mask.) It’s the collective pile of all first drafts ever written by all authors, even the “greats.”  Now go back and read that all-caps sentence again. Then say it out loud. Write it down on a sticky note and put it on your laptop. Your first draft will be bad too, and you know what? IT”S OKAY! Good, even, because completing a really lousy first draft is miles ahead of never finishing a good one. Once you give yourself permission to just write the story, even it it’s terrible, you open up the chance both to finish, and to surprise yourself with hidden jewels. Because buried in all the rotten fish guts, you will find beautiful little turns of phrase, or sentences, or even whole scenes that represent your very best possible work.

Tip #2 – Send the editor on vacation

This tip is a corollary of #1: if your first draft is bound to stink, the last thing you need is your inner editor standing over your shoulder complaining the whole time. Tell your editor to enjoy a nice vacation in Hawaii, and that you’ll call as soon as the first draft is done. Until then, just write, but DO NOT EDIT. You can reread sections you’ve already written to help as you move the story forward, but don’t make any changes.

Tip #3 – Know how to course correct

Wait, don’t panic. Just because you can’t edit doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind about elements of your story, or where your story is headed. You can course correct if you hit a wall, accidentally let a secondary character take over, or realize you hate the ending you were setting up. The key is to do it without rewriting anything. Wherever you are in the story, stick in a nice set of brackets, like so [ ], and inside explain in as much detail as you want all the changes you’ll go back and make after you finish your draft. Then, keep writing as if all the changes have already been written.

Tip #4 – Write regularly

I can’t emphasize it enough. Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. The only way to crank out 50,000 or more words in less than a decade is to write regularly. You can’t just wait until your muse moves you, or inspiration strikes, or you “feel” like writing. What does regularly mean? For some writers, it might mean a daily word count goal. For others, it’s less about number of words and more about time spent writing. How much you write–whether every day, or a certain number of days a week–and when you write depend on your schedule.

Personally, I’ve always set a goal of writing daily (or nearly so), but without a set word count goal. My time often comes in small bits during the day, but I find that if I at least get my laptop turned on, I’ll make more progress than I expected. Besides, even if you only write 100 words on a given day, that’s still 100 more than you had the day before.

Events like NaNoWriMo can help you set big goals and stick to them because of the accountability and encouragement from other writers.

Tip #5 – Don’t give up

A favorite saying among writers is, “You can’t edit a blank page.” When you finish this draft, no matter how awful it seems at the moment, you get to call the editor back in to help fix everything. You’ll give the draft a little rest and then reread it, compare it to your original vision, and come up with a game plan for the best ways to fix it. But you can’t fix something that doesn’t exist–you have to finish it first. So hang in there, keep pressing on, and whatever you do, don’t give up!


I’m sure you have other great ideas for ways to get through writing the first draft. Please feel free to share them in the comments below! You never know when your ideas will be what encourages another writer to finish their work. Until next time, best of luck, and enjoy the journey!

Image credit:, CC0 License.

One thought on “Novel Writing 101: 5 Tips for Nailing the First Draft

  1. Pingback: Novel Writing 101: Keeping it Real – Writing When It’s Hard | Kellie Michelle Parker

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