Why You Should Finish Your First Draft As Quickly As Possible

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If there’s one writer who’s (thankfully) incapable of shutting up about the writing process, it’s beloved American horror icon Stephen King. In his fantastic and much-quoted On Writing, he says,

The first draft of a book – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season.

– Stephen King, On Writing

And, ever since On Writing’s publication in 1999, we eager students of his work have been pondering the wisdom of this statement. Is spewing out your writing as quickly as possible really the best way to ensure you finish your book? Is it really better than adding to a manuscript slowly and carefully, even if it takes years to finish?

Yes, yes it is. But why? Well, dear reader, if you’re sitting comfortably…

A likely story

I started with Stephen King, so I’ll continue with him; this first reason to write quickly is taken straight out of his book. For King, getting that first draft done fast is important because it keeps you engaged in and familiar with the story you’re trying to tell. If you take any longer, King says,

The story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on a high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity.

– Stephen King, On Writing

This is a good point; with our 21st-century attention spans, it’s easier than ever for us to get sick of our own stories. You know that initial excitement and passion you experience when you come up with a cool idea for a story? That’s what you’ve got to capture and maintain while writing your book, and your best chance of doing that is by getting stuck in.

Passion is the fuel for your first draft, but it’s a brief flame.Click To Tweet

It’s also a great way of making sure you don’t stray too far from the core premise or fly off on too many tangents; it’s easy, after all, for a writer to come up with new ideas and directions if given the time to do so, and while these can be good news for your writing, they can also dilute your story. By getting your draft down quickly, you’ll ensure you’re telling the story you set out to tell.

Get over the fear

In her superb 1934 text Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande points out that the reason so many people are disappointed by creative writing courses is because those courses jump straight to the technical stuff and don’t pay any attention to the main obstacle between writers and their work: themselves.

Fear of failure; a sense of inadequacy; the idea that ‘real’ writers possess some kind of unattainable magic or genius; the notion that writers are born, not made; these are all demons that must be slain for a writer to become productive. Or, if you can’t slay them, run past them while they’re looking the other way.

Write fast enough and you can have a first draft before your demons know you’ve started.Click To Tweet

This latter method is essentially enabled by diving into your first draft and tearing through it furiously. If you grab a pen and do nothing but write, you won’t have time to worry or doubt; there’s only you, the pen, and your hand whipping up a storm on the paper in front of you.

Separate editing from writing

One of the main things that slows down writers and keeps them second-guessing themselves is editing as they go. They might finish a scene in a flurry of activity and, grinning at their productivity, go back to read it only to find typos, errors, and weak sentences. Discouraged, they’ll hang up their pen and call it a day.

Or maybe they won’t; maybe they’ll spend the next few hours trawling through the fresh text, editing and fixing and polishing. Great – it’s looking good. Now, where were they? What was happening? They were excited about something; someone was about to do something. A plotline was hurtling toward its dazzling crescendo. Something climactic was about to happen… but what?

Nothing kills momentum like editing. Finish a draft before you worry about the details.Click To Tweet

Nothing kills momentum like editing, and I say that as an editor. Save the red pen for afterward, when everything’s already safely on the page and your story is done, otherwise you’ll umm and ahh until the cows come home and that book will never get finished.

Get in the zone

Ah, the zone: that mythical Elysium we creative types dream about. You know what I’m talking about; when you’re in the zone, words come easily, your fingers type furiously, and the ghosts of great writers past seem to whisper what to write into your ears. Your storylines interweave and combine in ingenious ways without you even thinking about it, and poetic phrases fall from your pen as if by magic. The zone, man.

You can spend hours trying to find your way into the zone – downing espressos, listening to Chopin, surrounding yourself with pot plants – but, if you’re not sufficiently engaged in what you’re doing, you’ll never enter its hallowed halls. On other days, you’ll wake up and trip into the zone without even trying. It’s a fickle thing.

However, one surefire way to make a beeline for the zone no matter its particular whims is to turn up and throw yourself into your writing. Yes, that first half hour might be agonizing, and you might write with all the grace of a blind turkey; storylines might seem cumbersome and characters dull, but keep at it for long enough and click. Despite yourself, you’re engaged. You’ve forgotten your phone, your responsibilities, the outside world; there’s only the story. You’ve found momentum and you’ve established rhythm. Everything’s falling into place.

This is a direct result of speed. You’ve not given yourself time to doubt or be distracted; you’ve dived in and your story’s flooded your head. By working quickly and, dare I say it, thoughtlessly, you’ve tapped into that deep part of your unconscious that somehow knows how best to tell your story. In other words, you’re in the zone.

Be prepared to redraft and edit

Easy cowboy – yes, you’ve worked like some kind of literary tornado and your first draft has been churned out, but now’s not the time to write a book proposal or to self-publish. I’m afraid it’s time for your sober, analytical self to take over: that’s right, it’s time to redraft and, afterward, edit.

Write your first draft as quickly as possible and then commit to a rigorous editing process.Click To Tweet

Redrafting and editing, while lacking the romance of that first creative urge, is just as important. Okay, so there may be fewer strange fits of passion, but you know as well as I do that those eighty thousand rushed words are going to be full of typos, plot holes, questionable ideas, and clumsy descriptions – it’s just the nature of writing fast. But these problems are easily solved, and it’s far easier to prune, expand, and improve than it is to slowly assemble the complete product from scratch.

But how?

I’ve talked a lot about why it’s a good idea to dive right in and get that first draft finished, but I haven’t talked a lot about how to do that. After all, if throwing yourself into a writing frenzy was both easy and effective, we’d all be doing it.

So, what do you need? The biggest resource is, sadly, time. Writing quickly is much easier if you’re able to cultivate a sense of monomania, and that’s only possible if you’ve got the time to dedicate to your writing and are able to shirk your real-world responsibilities. Of course, this doesn’t render the whole point moot; even freeing up an hour a day to dedicate to writing will have you well on your way.

Some important things to remember: you still have to plan! After all, if you don’t know where your story is going before you throw yourself in, you’ll quickly write yourself in circles. Second, be kind to yourself. If you have to miss a day or if you spend you whole writing hour unable to concentrate and staring blankly at a wall, know that that too is part of the process. We all have our wall-staring days. Third, try to isolate yourself from anything distracting. Close the door, turn off your phone, write on paper if you don’t trust yourself to use a computer – make sure that writing is the most interesting thing you have access to. Most importantly, write; no excuses.

Have you tried squeezing out a novel in record time? Do you prefer to write quickly or slowly? Let me know in the comments, and check out Why Writing Your First Draft Is Not As Scary As It Seems and NaNoWriMo Week 1: How To Get Your First Draft Started for more great advice on this topic.


17 thoughts on “Why You Should Finish Your First Draft As Quickly As Possible”

    1. Hi Jim,
      I’d say the same rules apply – go in knowing the story you want to tell, and splurge it down as quickly as possible before spending more time in the editorial and redrafting phase. Short stories are perhaps more difficult in this regard in that everything has to be tight and no space can be wasted – one of my favorite short story writers, George Saunders, purportedly spent a decade on a single short story, and I’d say it was worth the time! Of course, I don’t know how much of that time was spent writing and how much was spent tweaking – it’s never an even process.
      Best of luck with your work.

  1. This is exactly what I needed to read today. Slow writing is no longer working. To move forward I think I have to go fast and I edit later. Thanks for this post

    1. It can be painful, but sometimes you’ve just got to bite the bullet! I’m glad you found the post helpful.
      Best of luck to you.

  2. yes as always great advise, I have so far been writing kids stories, for pics books. wrote text one side and pics the other, nine books in one week, then find describe the scenes all at once. Loved it.

    1. Hi Annamarie,
      I’m so glad you found the post useful. Nine books in one week is quite a feat!
      Best of luck with your future projects.

  3. Judy Gerard Thomson

    While it all makes great sense, I thank the Powers That Be I didn’t finish my first draught in three months.

    As it turns out, the novel I started is NOT the novel I now write. Within a year of starting, I was stunned to discover new research/facts that turned everything I’d done on its head. If I’d finished on schedule, I wouldn’t be editing – I’d be starting from scratch…several times.

    One of my autorial idols says her very first book took over 20 years. All books that have followed now come rapidly to her…because she crafted a world she can now return to without regretting anything she said previously in that first volume (no need to change names, places, etc. – changes I see regularly in hastily published series; yes, one might have one or two pentimenti, but when, by a third book, an author has once again rearranged his “facts”, I call a halt and donate to Goodwill Industries).

    1. Hi Judy,
      Absolutely, this advice won’t apply to everyone or every project – there are short story writers who take a decade on a single story and novelists who, like you, change direction mid-project. Steady progress is a fantastic thing if you can do it!
      Best of luck with your writing.

  4. This is currently what I’m doing–writing like a horde of demons is after me. I procrastinate a lot, and I lose steam when I get halfway through what I’m writing. I have the outline, the names of characters and places, I’ve got everything else prepared. All I needed to do was start writing.

    But after I had everything prepared, I felt daunted. It wasn’t until I saw this video (by Heart Breathings) on YT about writing when you don’t feel like writing that I said, “Screw it” and just started typing.

    It’s true what you said that after a few minutes, you start to establish rhythm, and you feel that spark again, that passion, that excitement. I’m sure the next drafts after this one will be larger, the world-building better, and maybe several changes, but I will then already have a structure I can see, a story I can build upon and polish.

    Most of all, finishing the first draft of a full-length novel will tell me, “Hey, you were able to do it. You can do it again.”

    1. Hi Ann,
      Thanks for your comment – I love your point about seeing the writing process as something that produces something “you can build upon and polish,” and I certainly echo the importance of reaching a point psychologically where you know you’re able to finish something. These are huge moments for any writer.
      Best of luck with your writing.

  5. This is pretty obvious. I don’t believe I have ever seen any one propose the opposite – take as long as you want to write a First Draft. Writing is rewriting is the old adage which means the sooner you get to that phase, the better.

    1. Hi Jim,
      It may seem obvious, but there are many high-profile writers out there who suggest the opposite. Celebrated British novelist Zadie Smith, for example, agonises over the first draft, but when she finishes it, that’s it – there’s no redrafting, no heavy rewriting, just whatever tweaks her publisher suggests. As with all things, there are a plethora of differing perspectives and opinions on how best to get a book finished.
      Thanks for your comment!

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this article and I’ve considered this technique. Man, it’s scary though to think of putting down so many words without the confidence I won’t be pushing ‘delete’ all the next day. But the way you’ve explained it has encouraged me. I’ve been stuck for quite some time without knowing where to turn next at my current part. I think trudging through it with courage would get me beyond this point and may open up some new avenues for this present block. Thanks for the plan.

    1. Hi Greg,
      I’m so glad you found the post helpful! But you’re absolutely right – knowing that, without constant editing, what you write will gain a relative “permanence” is a scary and intimidating thing. Sometimes you have to power through!
      Best of luck with it,

  7. I’m writing a novel but I’m publishing it on an Italian website (I’m Italian) where people can post original stories and FanFictions. So when I finish a chapter I have to edit it before doing that. Unfortunately I had an accident when I was at work, and because of the pain I haven’t written in almost a month. It was hard but I had to, the accident wasn’t so bad but I couldn’t concentrate. I re-started writing this morning and I’m going to finish and post my new chapter today. I know my situation is particular because I post my novel online, but I just wanted to explain. And, even if sometimes I write slowly, I’ve begun this novel a year and a half ago (it’s almost finished) and I’ve never lost tthe passion for it, for my characters etc.
    Anyway, your articles are great and you advice helps me a lot. Thanks!

    1. Hi Giulia,

      Wow, I’m sorry about your accident and wish you a speedy recovery. It’s amazing you’ve been able to write at all given the pain! Obviously this post’s advice relies on perfect real-world circumstances, and whatever works for you is the correct way forward.

      Best of luck with your writing.


  8. Thank you for this, Fred. I found it very encouraging and helpful! I have an issue on which I’d like your opinion. For the past year I’ve been dabbling here and there, writing certain scenes of my novel as they come mind. Now I have just over three months left before my self-set first draft deadline and I’m thoroughly motivated to sit and finish it in a frenzy. Should I start all over (keeping the same story but temporarily ignoring the scenes I’ve already written for later evaluation) or should I just quickly try to churn out the sections in between those?
    I would appreciate any recommendations.

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