6 Things To Do With a First Draft

So often on social media, in groups and classes, I see writers pull out a first draft of a piece of work and say to other students, critique partners, friends or family, “Tell me what you think.”

I cringe.  

These are six suggestions of how you might handle your first drafts.

  • Keep it to yourself.
    To me, a first draft is the paint you throw at the wall to see what sticks. At this point you may not even be clear of what you’ve written, and why. And inviting feedback too soon can deflate you / send you down the wrong path / leave you open to other people’s interpretation rather than your own.
  • Approach this draft with curiosity rather than judgement.
    Ask yourself what you have done? How does it make you feel – both in general terms of satisfaction, and craft terms. Go looking for things that resonate with you, excite or puzzle you. Or surprises that have emerged out of nowhere – what I call the ‘spooky writing stuff’.
  • Go in with a highlighter and mark up the ‘best bits‘. Whether it’s a word, turn of phrase, metaphor, paragraph, plot point or other element, this can help remind you that even if this draft does not stand up to whatever expectation you may have had, there are things in it that have value, that satisfy you, that reinforce the knowledge that you can write.
  • Pull back and write a few sentences about what you had planned to do.
    Identifying your initial goal – if you had one – when you first started putting these particular words on the page can be helpful. What was the main story, underlying theme, mood, genre and readership you were aiming for? I know some writers, especially those working on shorter pieces – short stories, personal narrative or poetry – who actually head each page of a work in progress with their ‘statement of intent’ or ‘premise statement’. It is worth the time checking in with yourself sooner rather than later about what prompted this piece of writing.
  • Start again from scratch.
    Take another run at it using/incorporating everything you have learned, discovered, articulated or thought about in examining your first First draft. And write a New First Draft.
    I would, however, still urge you to hold off on sharing it with others, until you are ready to…
  • Ask specific questions or request specific feedback.
    Let readers know which of the elements of craft you would like them to respond to. It is unfair to the reader to not let them know what kind of input you’re looking for – whether it’s about overall story development, POV, dialogue, description, characterization, logic of information, use of language… and not asking for what you really need right now can lead to your dissatisfaction with the responses you get. 

Often my students or writing peers want me to give them feedback on their work. The first question I ask is always, “What draft is this?” If they say the first, I send them away with these few points to think about.

And if they say, “It’s all done. I have just sent it off to <leading literary journal/major publisher/agent> I might suggest they hold off asking for input until they hear back. It takes courage to hit Send on a piece of work or project that you believe is as good as you can possibly make it. (If it’s not, it was not ready to go out, anyway – but you might not be ready to hear this yet.) 

Critiquing a ‘finished’ piece has its own potential landmines – and requires different skills and approaches – and a very careful hand!

Some helpful resources to help you move your work along to the next draft.

Manuscript Makeover – Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon
The First Five Pages – A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman
How to Move From First to Last Draft to Publishable Book by Janet Friedman on her website
Reverse Outlining: A novel approach to revising fiction and memoir by Lois Peterson – feel free to use/adapt/share/ Listed on my webpage along with other free handouts.