September 29

What’s the right way to write a first draft? The big secret that every author knows

You see the books on display as you walk through a busy airport. You flip through the New York Time bestseller’s list. You hear an interview with a successful author. And you think, “They must know something I don’t.”

Those authors, out there, must have some special process that they’ve honed over the years.

They must be able to dictate their books and have someone else transcribe their words.

They must have a team of ghostwriters.

They must have it all figured out.

And I don’t, so I probably will never be a successful author, especially if I can’t figure out how to write a first draft.

Let me break this secret wide open for you (the secret that all these authors already know): THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY TO WRITE A FIRST DRAFT.

You can use a mind map or an outline or Post-It notes or a whiteboard or sidewalk chalk or a typewriter. You can write early in the morning or during lunch or late at night. You can write in three sentences a day or three hours a day.

You can write it in a box. You can write it with a fox. (Okay, sorry, done.)

It does not matter how you get the words on to the page.

All that matters is that those thoughts, the ones swirling around in your head, are formed into words and written onto a physical piece of paper or a digital document.

It’s okay if your written thoughts are a bit jumbled, don’t completely make sense, and aren’t even spelled correctly. Seriously, it’s okay.

I’ve been an editor for nearly a decade. I promise you can take the most garble first draft and work it into logical, compelling piece.

But you have to have the words out of your head and on to paper, first.

I’m asking you to put aside all of your excuses. And I’m giving you permission to let it be messy.

I know you’d rather me tell you that there’s a perfectly predictable, streamlined way to write a first draft, but the truth is, no matter how organized you begin, it always turns into a mess. Embrace the mess, and just keep writing.

Put aside the excuse that others have it figured out because, I promise you, they don’t. They don’t have a perfect system. They have coping mechanisms. When the fear and doubt and excuses slip in, they simply know to keep writing. Trust that it’ll all work out and keep writing.

Let yourself be open and messy and vulnerable.

Because that is where your power is.

When you can crack yourself open and allow those words to spill onto a page, you’ll find stories, wisdom, insights, and ah-ha moments that you didn’t even know were inside you. And you don’t need color-coded Post-It notes to find them. You just need to set aside excuses and let that messy first draft emerge.

If you could go back and tell yourself one thing about writing, what would it be?

Honestly, as a young writer, I stressed so much about style and grammar that I would procrastinate for months, until the deadline loomed over me. If I could go back and tell myself one thing, it’d be this: There is no perfect way to write, there is only a messy first draft that you shape and re-shape. Embrace the mess, and you’ll find your true voice.

What would you tell your younger self? Let me know in the comments below. I can’t wait to read it.


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