Tips for Writing a First Draft: A Guide for Students

“There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” —Ernest Hemingway 

Getting students to write a first draft might be one of the biggest hurdles to jump as a writing instructor, but I believe that a lot of that difficulty stems from misunderstandings about what a first draft really is.   

Students often have the idea that other writers sit down at their computer and write a perfect piece of writing, starting with the first word in their essay, finishing with the last.  But of course, they couldn’t be further from the truth.

Yes, there have been a few famous writers who have painstakingly labored over each individual word until they complete a finished final draft, but that kind of writing doesn't work for most people.  Instead, what most writers do is to write a pretty horrible first draft, and then revise revise and revise some more.  Vladimir Nabokov once said, “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.”

So the key is to finish the first draft, preferably without much bloodshed, and then to revise it until it’s right.  (For a printable student-friendly version of these tips as well as more practical handouts and guides for teaching writing workshop, click here.)

Here are 6 tips for writing a first draft.  

  1. Spend as much time on the prewriting as you can.  Lists, freewrites, discussions, research—whatever it takes to get the ideas flowing.  Think as much as you can before you start your draft.  Don't start writing until you can barely keep up with your thoughts.
  2. Write about something that matters to you.  When you feel strongly about your topic, when you have an idea that you want to communicate to a reader, that shows in the writing.  (It also shows when you yourself are bored by the topic and don't really want to write about it.  Trust me on that.)  So pick a topic that you really care about.
  3. Push through to the end, resisting the effort to perfect your writing as you go.  You might want to stop on occasion and reread what you have done, but try not to be overly critical with yourself at this point.  Just get it down and get through it.  You’ll have time to come back to the draft later.
  4. Get in as much detail, information, and explanation as you can.  It’s always easier to cut than it is to add, and most writers tend to overestimate what they have included in their first drafts.  Make sure that everything that is in your head gets on the paper.  And then add a few more details just in case.
  5. Let it go where it goes.  If the ideas or focus or point of the essay starts to shift or change or develop, let it.  Writing is thinking, and you can and should develop your ideas as you go.  In fact, many people don’t really know what they think until they start writing, so let the essay shift and change if it needs to.
  6. Know that most writers write terrible first drafts.  Don't get discouraged if you don't like what you have at the end of the first draft.  Even a few decent sentences will have made your effort worthwhile.  In fact, you’ll probably be surprised at how many great sentences you have crafted.

Students need to think about writing as a sculptor creating a work of art out of a big slab of stone.  The first step is to get that big chuck of stone—that’s the first draft.  After that, they can start carving away on what they have.  And that’s when it’s time to start on the revisions.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids, meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village, or writing in her blog, Gil Teach.

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