First Draft Secrets: Five Simple Steps

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A guest post by Marla Beck

If you’re anything like me, sometimes writing a first draft can be a huge struggle. On some level we may be busy “just writing,” but on another level, we’re often working hard to ignore, silence or simply drown out our mind’s chatter.

No wonder we sometimes resist writing and finishing our first drafts!   It’s not always easy to split our attention between writing and “mind-management.” To write a useful, “flavorful” first draft, it helps to have a helpful mindset and a few tools to help us focus.

Mind Management 101:  Accept the Chatter

Although the flow state feels amazing when it happens, it’s a state that blesses us mostly when we’re not explicitly trying.  “Flow” won’t happen every time we write.

To write a flavorful first draft, it’s important that we understand and accept a simple fact:  we’re human, and sometimes we’re going to bring an unruly or uncooperative mind to the table when we write.
Writers I coach sometimes worry they may be “forever blocked” when they’ve had a difficult writing session.  They may feel that until they learn to manage or “completely overcome” their negative mental chatter, they’re not writing well. Please avoid making these common mistakes.

Remember that every writer experiences blocks.
Remember that the quality of one writing session doesn’t define a life’s work of writing.

We diffuse our focus and use up valuable writing energy when we try to “reason with” or overcome  distracting thoughts. The solution to creating fantastic first drafts is much simpler.  First, accept that “mental chatter happens.” Then, redirect your mental chatter as you write.

Mind Management 102:  Redirect

Ever notice that when you’re just about to get a shot, the nurse suddenly asks about your job, your family or your summer plans?  When we’re faced with a task we resist (getting a shot, writing a first draft), it’s much easier to relax when we’re focused on something else.

Literary forms and writing exercises jump-start our writing because they provide us with helpful limits. (“Have I made the links explicit between ’cause’ and ‘effect?'” “Hmmm. Have I described seven different colors without naming them?”)  Restrictions and guidelines occupy our minds so we can focus more freely on writing.

Introducing the “Swiss Cheese Draft”

I confess:  Swiss cheese intrigues me.  It’s substantive, it’s flavorful and it’s got some degree of structural integrity.   Swiss cheese doesn’t fall apart, despite its many holes!

Try the following exercise with a sense of openness and adventure.  We’re going to build your “Swiss cheese draft” by shifting your focus from creating a “solid” first effort to creating a “flavorful” slice of writing, one that holds together, despite its many gaps.

Here’s how:

Step #1 - Limit Your Focus
Decide What the “Cheese” Is.  
Before you begin to write, choose one element (“content” or “form”) to define your Swiss cheese draft’s structure.  In other words, answer the question, “what’s the ‘cheese?'”

  • For example, if you need to loosen up and have fun, you might take risks by challenging yourself to see how badly (very badly) you can write.  This is an example of a focus on content.
  • You might want to explore a new character’s motivations or personality in-depth.  If so, you might challenge yourself to situate your character in a specific setting and see how emotionally resonant you can depict the character’s thoughts and actions.  This is another example of a content focus.
  • If you’re drafting a persuasive essay, you may want to sketch out the basic structure of your argument, using placeholders for specific facts, anecdotes or context to support your points.  This emphasis on drafting the piece’s structure is an example of a focus on form.

Once you’re defined your “cheese,” write a one-sentence statement of “what I’m going for in this draft” and put it at the top of your screen or page.  (Tip:  you may choose to emphasize the word “draft” as a reminder.)

Step #2 – Limit Your Time.
Decide to spend a specific and limited amount of time writing your Swiss cheese draft.  For example, “I’ll draft my new article for the next two hours, until 12 noon…no more, no less.”

Your time frame doesn’t have to be limited to one day.  If you’re working on a book chapter or long essay, you may need several work sessions.  Just be sure to decide on a time limit, and when you’re finished write it at the top of your page or screen.

Now you’re ready to write.  To keep you focused, you may want to set a timer as you begin.
(Tip:  To stay focused on your project, send a friend a “bookending” email, Tweet or text message.  Tell them you’re starting your draft, and describe your time limit.  Let them know how long it’ll be before you report back to them with a quick progress report.  Bookending is amazingly effective!)


Step #3 – Mark the Holes as You Go.

You don’t need to have all your ideas developed or research completed to finish a useful first draft.
As you write, use placeholders such as “X”, “[REWORK],” [??]” or  “_________________” to hold space for things to add later.  (You may do this already.)

Using placeholders acknowledges gaps you’ll return to in later revisions, freeing you up to focus on your writing.

Step #4 – Notice and Redirect.
(Keep Making “Cheese”!)
As you’re writing, your mind may still speak up and try to distract you from writing.  If this happens, here’s your chance to greet it wisely.

“Hello, mental chatter…I’ve been expecting you!  Have a seat right over here, and hey – would you watch the clock for me?

“Oh, go check something for me.  Can you remind me, ‘what’s the cheese?’ Oh yeah, that’s right.  Thanks!

“Sit tight, now…I’ll be with you shortly.”

Step # 5 – Cure the Draft Before You Revise
According to this Swiss cheese recipe, a newly formed cheese must cure for four months to a year before it’s ready to be eaten.  Your finished Swiss cheese draft may be cured and ready to revise as early as two days after creation.  It may need longer to settle.  Let your aesthetic palette guide you, and when it’s time to sample your draft, enjoy your flavorful first effort.
—-
I hope you’ll have fun with these ideas.

How do you manage your mind when you write?
How’d your first “Swiss cheese draft” turn out?  I hope you’ll drop us a line in the comments and give us your ideas.

Marla Beck coaches writers to finish their novels and create more time for their writing.  Read more articles on writing and life balance at TheRelaxedWriter. Follow Marla on Twitter: @MarlaBeck

Photo by iguerra>

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32 thoughts on “First Draft Secrets: Five Simple Steps”

  • Mary Jaksch says:

    Thanks for a great post, Marla!
    I love the ‘Swiss Cheese’ idea. I’ve never thought of leaving gaps and filling them later. Sometimes I get stuck by not being able to fill some gaps.

    Great idea to lay out the bones of the post first and then freely leave gaps and pop in placeholders for stories, quotes, and so on.

    I’m going to try this!

  • Pan says:

    I have no words to say, it’s perfect. this blog is helping me a lot and this post is the best until now for my own difficulties.

    and forgive my poor english

  • IvánPérez says:

    What a great idea for a draft. I’ll try it this week!

    Cheers.

  • Wonderful guest post! I loved reading it and learned so much. Thank you!

  • Guy says:

    I am easily distracted. I cannot write in a room with a TV on, so I go into another room even if it there’s no heat/air.

    Some of my ‘mind managing’ tactics: set an alarm to go off after 20 minutes; close my eyes when typing (!); use JDarkroom, which is a full-screen text editor without bells and whistles and fully obscures all other windows. I am training myself to laugh contemptuously at any typos and ignore them. It’s kind of liberating.

  • Coach Marla says:

    Mary, thanks for the opportunity to write for your wonderful blog. I love WritetoDone’s sense of community–it’s fantastic.

    Readers, looking forward to “meeting” you guys & hearing your ideas!
    -Marla

  • Coach Marla says:

    You know, I never thought much about Swiss cheese until now. Cracks me up – I’m not sure I even enjoy eating it! (Although the metaphor was fun to play with here.)

    Pan, your English rocks. :) I’m happy that you & IvanPerez & PP enjoyed this post and found it helpful. Look forward to hearing how your draft goes.

    Mary, I used to get so derailed when I encountered a hole in my draft. (Perfect excuse to get sidetracked with research, isn’t it?) I’ve been expanding my repertoire of “placeholder” markings lately (and having some fun creating new ones lately). I’m finding it helps.

    Guy, love your techniques to overcome distraction. (Esp. typing with eyes closed. I admit, it does sound kooky, but I’ll bet it works!) :)

    The Darkroom program (for PC) is a terrific resource, I hear. I’ve experimented with its sister app for the Mac (WriteRoom) and love it.

    -Marla

  • Guy says:

    @Marla: Thanks! I don’t write with eyes closed very often, it seems like only when I’m feeling distracted. It like driving with your eyes closed, only without the collision. Still scary, a little. But it does bring you down to just two things: you and the words.

    I specifically use the JDarkroom program (“J” for Java) because it is a simple .jar file. At work I use Windows and at home I use Linux. JDarkroom is OS agnostic, and portable. It all stays on my USB drive.

    TTFN!

  • Marla,

    Yeah, I’m like GUY, I set a timer and write away! Single-task for that specific time without jumping into anything else. For me, using a timer is essential for my productivity/output. Nothing else comes close. I haven’t tried a darkroom but might give it a try. :)

    Enjoyed your writeup, tips and suggestions. Nice way to capture the process we all experience. Cheers!

    -Mig

  • Suzannah says:

    I like Step #3. I do this all the time when I notice I’ve got an enormous logical hole somewhere in my writing. I’ll highlight it in red and promise myself to fix it later, because usually trying to fix it at the time throws you off when you’re on a roll. Thanks for the tips!

  • janice says:

    Nice to meet you Marla! Mary told me I’d enjoy this and I certainly did. It was funas well as very useful. Thank you both.

    It was also interesting for me as a fellow writing coach to see how you separate your selves and step outside of the situation. I liked #4, where you chat pleasantly with the Inner Chatty Voice so that Writer You can get on with the work. I do that, too, and it really works.

    I take it even further by writing different stages of a draft in different rooms or even buildings. If possible, I write my drafts/notes/sketchy outlines in a notebook, often in a café, so that the typing up on a computer, in a completely different place, becomes a different phase, in space and time. It helps me switch between different modes and roles: moodler, inspiration capturer, planner, rough draft writer, quote gatherer, blogpost writer, comment writer, editor, article writer, collaborator (with my newsletter’s real editor). It takes the pressure off the ‘draft writer’ to see her as simply one part of a holistic list of other Me’s involved in the writing process. I’d recommend that folk with laptops try this. If you write at a table, it helps to move around it – like the tea party in Alice in Wonderland. It helps avoid overwhelm, gets you away from thinking “I am a writer. I am my writing. If I can’t write, I’m doooomed.”

  • Oke says:

    Mary,

    I’m still trying to have the same consistent voice from blog post to blog post and from essay to essay. The novel will take time, I just have to keep writing.

    I do like your point about placing a statement of the focus of the article or blog post or anything for that matter. I will try this out, as I write my next couple of literary works and see how it turns out.

    Do you know of a way to keep a consistent writing voice?

  • Yvonne says:

    I like the Swiss cheese analogy.

    I’ve been using “___________” spots in my writing since I was a youngster. (back before cut ‘n paste…what a wonderful invention!)

    Often I will skip around in my plot, writing whatever scene is talking in my ear that day. I make them different files so I can move them around as needed.

    I like your blog. Thanks for all the great advice.

  • Marla says:

    I’m really enjoying this “afterparty” with everyone. Thanks for leaving your comments!

    @Miguel, I agree…for me, too, it’s all about the timer. I noticed you blog about “gadgets.” Just curious: have you experimented (“digitally fiddled”) with online timers, (like the ones available at http://www.online-stopwatch.com/)?

    It’s great to hear your ways of marking the gaps when you write. @Suzannah, I like that you use a highlighter…I’m guessing you do this on hardcopy? or do you use your MS Word’s option for on-screen highlighting?
    @Yvonne, I liked hearing about your non-linear process with fiction. When you say you made different files for the scenes, how do you keep things organized?

    The best part of your responses is seeing how (many) different parts of the post resonated with you.

    Has anyone got “Swiss Cheese draft” results to share? Just curious…

    -Marla

    k you’ve written

  • Marla says:

    Hi @Oke, it’s Marla.

    You asked about how to have a consistent voice when writing online (blog posts) and on the page (essays).

    While I’m a life coach for writers (vs. “writing coach,” meaning I focus more on issues of motivation, productivity, time & mind management), I do have a few craft suggestions for you. Maybe other readers here will have feedback for you, too.

    In my experience, developing a “voice” comes from three factors:
    1. feeling comfortable and confident as I write,
    2. visualizing and really “sensing” my audience as I write, and
    3. reading reading reading reading. :-)

    A great place to start is by analyzing people’s writing you enjoy, and then imitating a piece as an exercise. As you do this, consider: What kind of tone, perspective, attitude, examples are they using in their writing? How long are their sentences?

    A quick websearch revealed this resource on writing for the web. (http://www.kerryr.net/webwriting/content_voice.htm) You may find more.

    What do you guys think?

  • Marla says:

    @Janice, thanks for introducing yourself! It’s great to meet a colleague. You’re in the UK, yes?

    It’s especially nice to meet you after reading your excellent “Quote-Hunting” post on WTD recently.
    (http://writetodone.com/2009/03/30/quote-hunting-how-to-improve-your-writing-and-your-life/). Enjoyed it.

    In your comment I liked your examples of your various writer selves very much! Also resonated with your idea of moving about as you write.

    Our bodies and writing selves are so connected…some of my clients experience really different results when they write on the page vs. on the screen, and they choose their way of writing depending on what they want to get done that session.

    Looking forward to checking out your blog & being in touch. Perhaps we can explore ways to collaborate sometime soon.

    @Mary, Thank you again for creating such a thriving community here. What a terrific experience.

  • Mary Jaksch says:

    Hi everyone! When Marla sent me her guest post I was struggling hard with my new post on Goodlife Zen. It’s strange how some posts write themselves and other – dang it! – just don’t.

    The post was past the stage where I could implement the Swiss cheese idea. But I then had a minor brain wave and thought the post could be improved by using a significant quotes sprinkled throughout.

    So I put in placeholders for where the quotes would sit. Then I went on a search. Having the placeholders sitting there made me much more relaxed about this mulish beast of a post.

    Want to see what the final result looks like? Check it out:
    Are You An Agent of Change?

  • Dave says:

    Terrific advice. On my first book I started at what I thought was the beginning & carried the story through to the end. During rewrites – Chapter 1 became Chapter 25 which added a twist that freaked readers out. With printed MS draft & a red flair in hand I carved & shaped that draft version (several times). Anything that didn’t help the story was axed – Where lacking, points of description, even a character, was added. That taught me a lesson. I’m nearly finished the first draft of book #2 – what I prefer to call the creative stage. This time I avoided the pickiness & traps (mental handcuffs) that bogged me down. I’ve even written chapters way out of sync – just because I was excited about an idea & wanted to take advantage of the freshness of the thought or a potential twist. (Suggestion: Print first draft – save marked up copy – it’s cool / fun / even annoying to compare the final product with the original “masterpiece” – Lots of ‘what was I thinking’ forehead smacking) Thanks – Good Post

  • Oke says:

    Marla,

    Thanks so much for your informative help! I asked a friend about this very thing and both of yalls tip has opened my eyes to what I need to do next when I write my next blog post and in general. I see my voice now. I know where I am going, I will exploit everything that is in me to produce work that my readers will enjoy and gravitate to.

    I will pick up my reading again. That is the way I will see what is out there and read how other people express themselves. I’m so ready to write this blog post and the ones to come.

    Again, thanks so much for your post and tips to get my writing flowing. I’ll see what else you have going on on your end!

  • Great ideas. Another strategy I use – not sure what to call it, it’s not exactly multitasking because you only work on one thing at a time… in any case, if one writing project feels stale, I’ll pick up on another. The less related the better. For example, if I do poetry as well as articles as well as journaling, these are all different enough to be refreshing changes from the others.

  • Larry says:

    I like Marla’s process here… a lot. Drafting isn’t something we can engineer in terms of process, what works for some doesn’t work for all. But what Marla offers certain helps any way you cut it, including the swiss cheese.

    But here’s a thought. In my view the most powerful drafting tool has to do with understanding the essence and the elements of your story before you draft it. The reason a second draft is far more effective than a first is that the writer has learned more about the story in the first draft (which assumes they began with a germ of an idea and knew little about where it might go from there)… and that process continues through subsequent drafts until the entire architecture of the story is clear and the characters have become fully realized and flush with backstory, motivation, hesitation, color, nuance and arc.

    Polishing the writing along the way is as much seizing an opportunity as it is the purpose of the draft. The real purpose of drafting is story development, while buffing up the words is more a polishing process.

    Which brings me to this compelling thought: imagine if you knew a LOT about your story BEFORE you wrote a first draft? Some people use – – and love — the drafting process as a journey of story discovery, and that’s fine, it’s wonderful in fact. But there’s an alternative, and a quicker and equally effective one.

    Other writers rely on criteria-driven checklists (the content and mastery of the elements of an effective story in a generic sense) coupled with the creative story-sequencing process. Sort of like draping a fine tapestry over a pre-fabricated infrastructure, both of which are of the author’s design, and neither of which compromises the creative process otherwise experienced during the drafting process.

    It’s what architects do, using standards and criteria to design buildings that can’t afford multiple drafts. It’s blueprinting, pure and simple.

    If you can pull this off — and I know you can, because I’ve done it and I’ve seen it done — you can write a first draft in which the story is already fully realized. Even a first draft that sells. The draft becomes the crystalization and evolution of something that you already know works, because like an architect brings art to the fundamentals of structure, we writers (who are also stuck with the fundamentals of structure, like it or not, or admit it or not) can do the same.

    It’s not “outlining,” per se, it’s much more. It’s an application of story architecture (which — again — like it or not, is fairly standard and templatable) to the glorious and creative fulfillment of a story.

    Hope this helps. It has me. Thanks Marla and Mary.

  • MissM says:

    The Swiss cheese method, though I never heard it called that before, works well for me. I have to write, let it sit, write, let it sit, then revise.

  • Hi, Marla! Great post!

    Three things:

    1. I love Swiss cheese.
    2. My name is Marla.
    3. Love the place card thing–I do this all the time but had never heard anyone talk about it.

    Off to check out your site!

  • Marla,

    Nice, thanks for sharing the link about the online stopwatch. Normally, I use a timer on my widget dashboard. I’m a Mac user. It gets the job done. Thanks again,

    -Mig

  • Matthew Miller says:

    Nice ideas, well structured. An addition from my toolbox: when the chatter happens, I just add a square bracket and capture the thought (works on typewritten or handwritten!). This way the thought has been recognized and the flow of words onto paper isn’t slowed significantly. After a couple weeks of this, I found my block moments much fewer. [Pick up milk at the store today] Just as an example :-). When I’m done, I can do a quick search for square brackets and move those to my to-do list, notes file, or wherever is most appropriate.

    Thanks!
    -Matthew

  • Coach Marla says:

    Hello again, everyone!

    @Paul, Thanks for writing. I call your habit of switching to a complementary (or entirely different) project when the one you’re working on gets stale “domain shifting,” and it’s a very useful skill to cultivate! Been meaning to blog about this tool. Your post’s inspired me to do so soon.

    @Dave, your forehead-smacking “what was I thinking” mention made me laugh out loud. So true! Great suggestion to keep old drafts…as you say, reviewing them later can be fun and instructive, too.

    @Matthew, I hadn’t thought of filling the brackets with entirely unrelated thoughts that come up during writing (grocery list, etc.), but it’s a *fantastic* idea, one I’ll remember & recommend (& attribute to you). Your technique speaks to one of my primary “Relaxed Writer” messages: that with awareness, we can boost our productivity by not buying into the “Either / Or” dualisms we create (art “vs.” craft; writing “vs.” life, form “vs.” content, etc.) but instead, with practice, we can learn to work in both realms simultaneously, as you do when writing. Very cool stuff.

    @Larry, I agree, deliberately blueprinting story form is good practice, especially in the initial stages of learning one’s craft or a new genre or form. In the comments to your new (well-written, btw. congrats!) WTD guest post, you say: “Craft can be learned, art must be discovered.” To discover often requires us to invest time in play, exploration or risk-taking on the page, and this “Swiss Cheese draft” exercise is just one of many ways to get there.

    @Missm, @Marla – thanks for saying hello. :)

    @Mary, off to check out your new post at Good Life Zen. Looking forward to it.

    Great to meet you, everyone! Will check back again soon.

  • Fantastic guest post and it’s lovely to come across a refreshingly new voice at Write To Done. :-) I’m looking forward to exploring more of your ideas and writing, Marla. It’s very nice to meet you.

    Dealing with the side-tracking and distractions of internal mind chatter is one of the most difficult challenges I face whenever I write. I have to constantly remind myself, “DRAFT”. One of the fantastic things about writing is that every word we write is not final until published. The writing process is one of constant growth and change. Having put a word here does not mean it is fixed to that point, it can be cut, moved, deleted, reworded, reworked…

    I suppose this too is a sense of the “Swiss Cheese Draft”. Knowing, accepting, even embracing the imperfections that are inevitable in the early stages of writing. Getting the words down is more important then getting them right.

    The good news is that with practice we make fewer mistakes, have fewer gaps, and can write more completely the first time. Getting into the habit of writing regularly is the first step. :-)

  • I don’t think you can expect to write an award winning novel, news article or feature straight away. You need to draft and re-draft.

    One thing that you touched upon that i think is really important is to let your thoughts flow and write them down. Once you have got all of your thoughts and ideas together you can then start to put together your piece of literature.

  • Larry says:

    Quick comment on Daneille’s comment above: I disagree, you don’t need to draft and re-draft. And I do agree, you can’t write an award-winning novel straight away — I TOTALLY agree with that — until you let your thoughts flow and write them down. To just start drafting without knowing anything about where to take it is… well, a recipe for an extensive rewrite at best.

    If I sound like I’ve just contradicted myself, I don’t think I have. Because you can do that — writing down all your thoughts and ideas about your story — without drafting and redrafting. You can do that by applying a thorough and creative process of OUTLINING your story first.

    If you understand story structure well, and if you are aware of the criteria of the various elements that go into it, then you can evolve your story at the outline phase without doing a draft. And without remotely compromising the creative process. Once the outline is solid, then your draft comes alive immediately, with your best thinking and all the elements in place, in the RIGHT place.

    I’ve sold three first drafts to a major NY publisher doing it this way. It works. It makes the drafting process not only more efficient, but more creative, empowering and rewarding, too.

  • Marla,

    Nice, thanks for sharing the link about the online stopwatch. Normally, I use a timer on my widget dashboard. I’m a Mac user. It gets the job done. Thanks again,

    -Mig

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