Simplifying First Drafts

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A lot happens in first drafts. You meet new characters, discover surprising plot arcs, and discover just how much coffee the human body can stand in a forty-eight hour period. You may have more going on in your draft than you realize or need, though. Here are some of the most important things you do not need to include or consider in your first draft.

The Title

Everyone wants to name their baby, but you should really wait until you have a baby before figuring out the perfect title. Before you know the best name for your book, you need to have a completed tale to analyze. It’s hard to know what themes, messages, and important imagery forms the core of the story before you begin revising. Take a deep breath and put the baby name book away for now.

Layout and Design

How should you title your chapters? Do you need to put chapter numbers in? Should every chapter begin on a fresh page? Maybe you need to divide your novel into mini ‘books’ like The Lord of the Rings. Are opening quotes for chapters still a thing, or is it too pretentious? These worries won’t help you get any work done at all. They are minor concerns you can worry about right before you put your draft in the mail for an agent or publisher. If a traditional publisher picks up your book, they may change a lot of your layout and design choices, anyway.

Impact on Your Career

Is this the Big One? Will it rocket to the top of the best seller list? How will that change your writing career? Maybe you can quit your day job! Or maybe it will be such a flop that your publisher will never accept another one of your books every again. Then again, if this book is popular, then you really need to consider all those movie right details.

STOP! No matter how good your book is, it cannot reveal the future. Don’t worry about reception, market, etc. until revisions. Even then, focus on making the story the best it can be. Focus on the book, not the imaginary red carpets ahead.

Structure and Theme

Your first draft will cause enough problems. Don’t focus on minutiae when you’re still honing the bare bones. Anyway, attempting to apply a particular theme or force a unique structure on an evolving narrative often spells trouble. Your pacing may suffer, and insights that might have felt effortless become clunky and self-conscious under the pressure of your theme. Let theme and structure grow from the first draft to develop in later revisions.

Grammar and Punctuation

Everyone wants perfection. You know how you create perfection? Revisions. Your first draft will feature an entire zoo of wild typos, run-on sentences, and even plot holes. Let them be. They don’t determine the quality of your first draft. Your story, characters, and general plot matter much, much more. You really need betas and proofreaders to help catch minor errors, anyway, because your eye naturally skips over your own mistakes.


Last, but not least, don’t worry about an agent. If you want to woo a particular agent, maybe add a few appropriate tweaks to your third or fourth draft that might catch their attention. Writing for an agent isn’t generally a great idea, though. Readers and publishers buy your books. Agents just sell them. Worrying over your future agent during your first draft just distracts you from the work at hand. Leave all that for later and get comfortable with your story.

Your first draft is a big enough burden without extra worries. Weeding out distractions like these helps you write faster, with greater attention to the things that really matter. You can worry about those movie rights later.

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  1. My first draft has chapter numbers because I’ll be moving stuff around and it’s easier to keep things in sequence. Dialog beats can be added later. The important thing is that I’ve got from A to B while keeping the story internally consistent and following the good old three-act structure.

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