What Should Be Included In Your First Draft—5 Helpful Tips For Success

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Terry Pratchett

Are you ready to write your first draft but unsure how to begin? This article will help you understand what should be included in your first draft to help you reach your second and even third drafts with relative ease. Ultimately, understanding what should be included in the first draft will help you become a better writer. Every writer needs to create the first draft of their work. Fiction and nonfiction writers need a rough draft or an outlined plan to work with as they write. When all the research is done, the main plot points considered, and the story conceptualized, you are ready to write your first draft.

First draft meaning

What is a first draft?

A first draft is the first attempt at writing a piece of text, whether it is a novel, a research paper, or an essay. It is not intended to be the final draft but rather serves as a step toward crafting a great piece of writing. The first draft is typically rough around the edges. For example, a novelist might write the first draft to flesh out the characters, explore the themes of the novel, and play with the plot points. The novel is by no means ready for publishing, but now the author has something to correct, change, edit, and improve. They can read over their work and even share it with other writers and get objective feedback.

Writing drafts before a piece is sent for publication is an important part of the creative process. Great novels, essays, and papers are well-written but not usually written in one fell swoop. They take time to piece together before the final product is polished and ready for the reader to enjoy. As mentioned, the first draft is something the author uses to drive the writing and editing process forward. Publishers also consider an author’s first draft and advise how to move forward if they want to be published under that company’s name.

What Should Be Included In Your First Draft

What should be included in your first draft?

As a writer, you have a lot of freedom when writing your first draft. Still, there are some basic ingredients you should always aim to include.

First drafts for fiction

What are the main ingredients in a novel or short story’s first draft? In essence, your first draft should include the following:

  • Story structure
  • Tone and theme
  • Characters
  • Setting

1. Story structure

Even though your first draft will be rough and far from the final edit, it should still convey the overall plot. It should include a clear beginning, middle, and end to your story. Of course, later drafts may involve some minor or major plot changes, but the first draft should still be a journey through the main plot points.

One of the benefits of writing the first draft is that it gives the writer a better vision of the plot, how well it works, and whether or not it is wise to alter it. It lets you check for plot holes you may not have previously understood. Many writers find that draft writing leads to unexpected plot changes that significantly impact the overall story. Essentially, the first draft is a test run for the story. Does it work? Does it carry the reader on an immersive journey? If not, what changes can be made to achieve that?

2. Beginning, middle, end

So, what are the main elements of a story’s structure—a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is an introduction to the story’s world and a clear reason why the main character(s) are involved. The middle is the part of the story where conflicts arise, and the main character is challenged to face and overcome them. The end is the story’s resolution, simply where the story stops being told.

3. Tone and theme

Seasoned writers understand that the tone of a piece takes on a life of its own throughout the writing process. Hence, the tone of your work does not need to be in its final form in your first draft. This is something you will explore and play with throughout the process. Still, the first draft can set the initial tone for your work.

A novel or short story’s tone develops through creative exploration and often surprises the writer as much as the reader. Moments of sadness in a character’s life can transform into gratitude, cowardice gets replaced by bravery, and playfulness can turn serious. Part of the fun of writing is that you get to watch the story unfold before your eyes. Your tone may shift, change, and adapt throughout your drafts, often under your characters’ decisions, perspectives, and actions, which leads us to the next crucial ingredient in a first draft.

Refine your writing process with creative writing

4. Characters

Before you begin writing, you likely have a rough idea of the characters who will play important roles. You have the main character, protagonist, those who support the protagonist, side characters, an antagonist, etc. All of these characters deserve a rich life of their own, and it is your job as a writer to flesh out these characters’ lives, give them substance, and make them interesting for the reader. The first draft is a ripe opportunity for you to play around with the characters. Understand the character’s decisions, strengths, and weaknesses, and drive the plot forward. Use your characters as vehicles for plot development.

5. Setting

The setting plays a key role in your story. It is as rich in potential as your characters and plot when immersing the reader in the journey. As such, the first draft should include an exploration of the setting. Again, it does not have to be a complete description, but its role should be clear. How does the setting advance the story? How do the characters relate to their world, and how does it influence their actions and decisions?

First drafts for nonfiction

If you want to write a nonfiction book, you need to have all of your facts, points, and messages outlined clearly. Research is a huge part of the work and should occur before you attempt to write your first draft. Once you have compiled your research and have a sense of the message you want to convey, it is time to get your first draft on paper.

Unlike fiction writing, your nonfiction first draft will not explore plot points and characters. The focus will be the main idea you want to share and how you choose to share it. As such, use your first draft to explore ways in which you can best convey your message. Do not worry about writing things in order. You do not need to begin with an introduction or move through your book chronologically. Piece it together as rough as you like. Your main priority should be getting all your points on paper and crafting a coherent message.

Still, if your work is something like an essay or a thesis statement, there will be a need for an introductory paragraph. However, even though it is the first paragraph of your paper, it does not have to be the first thing you need to write. Give each section of your work its own time and attention, and do not worry about getting one section complete before starting the other sections. Once you have got everything on paper and feel that your message is clear, you can move on to your second and third drafts and further refine your message.

Helpful tips for writing drafts

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later, I can build castles.”

Shannon Hale

Writing your first draft can be daunting if you are a first-time author. You may feel that it has to be perfect, but that is not the point of a first draft. It is supposed to be rough around the edges. Many creatives, not just writers, struggle with a case of perfectionism and experience creative blocks as a result.

Learning the writing process

1. Let go of the fear of failure

When writing your first draft, try to let go of the fear of failure. Great books, fiction and nonfiction alike are not written in one night in one fell swoop of the pen. They take time to flesh out, and you may end up writing several drafts before you begin to feel like your work is coming together. Rather than desperately straining toward some idealized endpoint, it is wise to cultivate patience and a sense of play in excitement for the journey. The fear of failure will prevent you from taking risks, and not taking risks is a risk in itself.

American novelist Anne Lamont advises: “Get it all down. Let it pour out of you and onto the page. Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can.” Author and professor Cal Newport explains: “I probably end up tossing out a quarter of what I write in the first draft of a book chapter. Even though I try to be pretty thoughtful about figuring out what I want to say before I write, you still have to see how concepts play on-page to decide if they deserve to stay.

2. Structure your writing sessions

Set aside time solely for a writing session, and use those hours every day as often as you work on your book to write whatever you can. Remember, this is your first draft, not intended to be the final, so now is the time to play with the concept. Dedicated, allotted writing time helps you enter a routine, which improves your flow and imagination.

Get all of your thoughts and ideas out on paper. Even if they do not make it to the next draft or the published book, they will give you an idea of what else could happen to the characters. Where else could the story go? With such a broad view of the story, you also learn which elements you do not like and would like to eliminate.

Writing within a structure helps you overcome writer’s block. Everyone gets stuck from time to time, but you know when you will stop writing if you adhere to a schedule. Knowing when your writing session will need encouragement to keep writing until that time is up. You might write irrelevant paragraphs that will be changed or deleted later, but within that free flow, you may stumble on better, more appropriate, and more engaging ideas that you would have otherwise missed.

3. Turn off the inner critic

No heavy self-criticism is necessary when writing your first draft. Again, this is an opportunity to be playful. Do not judge or critique what you are writing—just let it flow. Later you can add or subtract details, but for now, it is only necessary to let the words flow freely. The inner critic will tell you why your writing is poor or ineffective. Now is not the time to give it much attention. Instead, use your first draft as a creative opportunity. Answer to no one, get your ideas out on paper and trust that you can come back and improve on any mistakes later in the process.

4. Leave gaps

Again, a first draft is not a complete piece of work. It is an opportunity to flesh out the main ideas in your story. One of the greatest benefits of writing the first draft is that it helps your imagination flourish. Before you start writing, you may have many ideas about your plot, characters, and setting. Writing your first draft helps you create a frame or ‘skeleton.’ Sure, that divides the concept, making it less flexible. Still, within that framework, other pathways of imagination can flourish. When you come back to write a second or third draft, you will have already seen limits and possibilities that were unclear before the first round.

5. Seek feedback

Receiving feedback on a first draft can be tricky because it is an unfinished product. As such, it is wise to seek appropriate feedback from another professional writer or publisher. They will see through the non-urgent issues, consider the structure and development of the piece, and offer feedback relative to your goals.

Conclusion

Your first draft is an opportunity to develop your story further. You could write a lengthy character description in your first draft and, as you continue with the story, realize that certain elements of that character’s personality or behavior do not work as well as you had hoped. The same applies to plot points and even the setting. Use your first draft as a playground to see what works and what does not, and use later drafts to change and refine as you see fit.

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