How To Write A Killer First Draft In 6 Steps

Today’s guest post is by Gilbert Bassey.

A killer first draft, the holy grail—who doesn’t want it?

Conventional wisdom says that you can’t write a good first draft. As Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

No doubt, he makes a valid point, but, as with everything, just because it sounds true, doesn’t mean it holds true all the time.

I don’t believe the first draft has to be shit, and I’ll show you the 6-step process I use to create killer first drafts.

Before going on, it makes sense to come to terms with what a “Killer First Draft” is.

A Definition

First, what are the ways in which a first draft—or, rather, any draft—can be bad?

Narratively? -? most serious (flaw inherent in the story told)

Structurally ?-? easily fixable (flaw inherent in how the story is told/stitched together—it’s usually fixed by reordering scenes, chapters, or sequence of scenes)

Linguistically ?-? pet peeve (flaw in the language)

Having spent months working on your story, which problem would you rather have?

No one in their right minds would choose the first problem, but I’ve come across many writers whose process leads them to that very problem.

A story is a narrative, and if your first draft fails narratively, then it’s shit.

Structural problems aren’t so bad because they imply that the underlying story is already working, and the only problems are in how it’s stitched together.

Linguistic flaws don’t ruin a good story, but the best written prose won’t save a terrible story.

Hence, a killer first draft is a draft that has minimal narrative, structural, and linguistic problems.

The 6-step process is carefully constructed to help you tell the best version (or close to it) of your story the first time around by limiting all such problems.

Before we get to the steps in detail, we must take a detour to aid our future understanding of the process and why it works.

Two Types Of Writers

In my writing journey, I’ve found that there seems to be two main types of writers.

There are those who get an idea and run to the typewriter or computer, or in my case, an iPad. British novelist Zadie Smith calls them Micromanagers, of which she is one.

The second set are those who refrain from writing fade in or prologue until they have plotted the story to the end. Zadie Smith calls them Macro Planners.

The difference between both sets of writers is primarily in their method.

One writer doesn’t care about laying foundations, relying on the power of their subconscious to deliver a decent story the first time around, while the other ensures the story is alright before writing.

If you identify as a Micromanager and are unwilling to try something new, or are content with your method and the quality of first drafts produced, you may stop reading now.

Why may you want to become a Macro Planner if you’re naturally a Micromanager?

In Defense Of Macro Planning

I have a few friends who want to write but have found it difficult to get on with it.

It’s not that they don’t write, but, rather, they get an idea, get excited by it, and let it push them to begin the process.

At first everything is going great, and two chapters are churned out per day.

But then, one year later, they are on their fourth story, with the first three yet to be completed.

Why?

There are many reasons, but a lack of desire to write is not one of them. Somewhere along the line, they lost interest in the story or just couldn’t figure out what would happen next.

To be clear, there are best-selling authors who identified as Micromanagers—?Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, to name a few.

The problem with this method should be clear to see for anyone who has a basic understanding of how creation works.

You don’t start building a house the moment you conceive of the thought. You don’t build a car when the idea hits you. You don’t go on a vacation the moment you imagine it.

In all these things, planning is required.

Given the number of decisions required to be made in a story (characters, plot, and theme), it seems a bit insane to me to start writing without doing some groundwork.

When you engage yourself in writing an unknown/unplotted/unplanned story, you give yourself way too much work to do while writing, work you could have done prior.

Not to say that the 6-step process eradicates the importance of the subconscious and spontaneous creation. On the contrary, it magnifies its ability because it splits the creation process between the two sides of your mind, with each doing what it does best.

To understand how, let’s begin the process.

Step 1?-?God’s View

Primary agent: subconscious-conscious. Primary concern: creating/imagining the story

This is where it all begins. The moment the idea strikes. In this stage, you only want to gather ideas and take notes.

The primary advantage of this is you can be in this stage for several stories at the same time, for as long as possible.

Naturally, the longer you let the ideas ferment in your subconscious, the deeper they’ll blend with your experiences. And before long, you’ll have a lot of notes for what happens in your story.

The primary agent active in this process is the subconscious, and the subconscious is something that should never be rushed.

You know you’re ready to move on when you know, in general, what happens from beginning to end.

That’s the beauty of this process: the subconscious is given the time to deliver a million eureka moments, each time fixing the story and making it better or seeing clearer what was only vague months ago.

Another way to know if you’re ready is to use the following as anchor:

Inciting Incident? -?What sets your protagonist on the path to the big event?

Big event? -? The story’s hookHarry Potter goes to Hogwarts, Avengers assemble

Mid-act climax ?-? What major event happens in the middle?

Crisis? ?The worst thing that could happen to the protagonist

Resolution ?-? How does it resolve?

If you can see all of these events, then you’re most likely ready to proceed.

In this view you also get to decide or find what your theme is. At first, it may not be clear, but with time, as characters and plot develop, the theme will develop with them.

Step 2?-?Side Glances

Primary agent: conscious-subconscious. Primary concern: structuring the story

Once a general view of your story’s main events have been illuminated, you can then create/see it in more detail by zooming in to each individual scene that combines in telling the whole story.

It is best carried out by using a pack of index cards or sticky notes. Scribble scenes/chapter titles on them, and summarize what happens in the scantiest terms.

Step 3?-?Nine Narrations

Primary agent: conscious-subconscious. Primary concerns: refining the story

Having glanced your story from beginning to end in scanty detail, the next thing to do is to narrate. There’s two main reasons you want to do this.

The first is to gauge how good a story you have and how well you have told it. You do this by getting feedback.

It’s much easier to ask someone for ten minutes of their time to narrate a story to them (your friends certainly won’t mind and some strangers too) than it is to ask them to read a 120-page script or a 60,000-word novel.

It’s also wise from a business standpoint. Why invest resources (time) in a commodity that hasn’t been market tested yet? It’s like releasing a film without doing a test-screening to gauge audience reaction.

The second reason, and most important, is that this helps you make the story better. When you begin narrating your story to your first audience, you’ll find that with each narration, you carry out nifty surgeries on the story, spotting defects and fixing them on the spot, mid-narration.

I was curious why this tended to happen and so I thought about it.

It made sense. When you’re actively telling the story, you’re in a creation state, though you’re creating from a pre-existing blueprint.

In this state, your subconscious and conscious are working in tandem as you create new words to convey familiar information.

Then you come across a part in the story that doesn’t really make sense, and there’s a disconnect.

Because of the momentum thus built up, necessity inspires innovation, and the story is reconnected in an ingenious way that makes it flow better.

When it happens, it’s like magic; it fills you with joy.

How many times do you have to do this?

I reckon nine is the magic number, because “Ten Narrations” doesn’t have such a nice ring to it.

Step 4?-?Under the Microscope

Primary agent: conscious-subconscious. Primary concerns: telling the story

Traditionally, it’s called the treatment stage. Here you take your side-glanced story that’s been improved by the nine narrations under the microscope to jot down the information in more details.

You’ll write what happens, to whom it happens, how it happens, and why it happens.

It’s almost like writing the story but greatly differs because it doesn’t demand much in relation to prose styling or dialogue.

The aim is just to get the details of the story down. The characters, their motivations, their desires, their conflicts, the setting.

Again, no dialogue is required, so you don’t have to bother about what anyone said. Just look at them and take detailed notes.

It’s usually around a page or two per scene, or half a page, if laziness has a greater hold on you.

I’ve found you can cheat here, but know that you’re probably increasing the work you’re going to do later.

Remember, the idea is to do the groundwork, to lay the foundations.

Step 5?-?To the Computer (or tablet or pad)

Primary agent: conscious-subconscious. Primary concerns: writing the story

If you didn’t cheat under the microscope, then this will not be as hard.

This is the moment you finally get to let your characters talk. And also the time I begin to dread the rigorous demands of prose styling.

Having gone through the last four steps, you’ll be able to breeze through chapters in days, depending on your writing style and how much you get in the way of the flow.

Step 6?-?The First Edit

Primary agent: conscious. Primary concerns: refining the story told

Basically what it says. You edit what you have into a first draft of your story. This is particularly useful for finding and fixing linguistic errors.

It’s called the first edit because no story is set after this stage. That is the reality of the job.

That said, all future edits will be dedicated to refinement (making the prose or script better) as opposed to reconstruction, or in some cases, construction.

If you’re writing a script, this is where you fine-tune your dialogue and descriptions.

Ideally, you should start the first edit sometime after finishing the prior step. The reason is to give you the chance to view the story with fresh eyes.

With all this work done, you should have a first draft that works narratively, structurally, and linguistically—a killer first draft.

Which aspect of your draft do you struggle most with? Share in the comments!

Gilbert Bassey is a writer and story consultant who is dedicated to telling great stories and helping other writers do the same. You can follow his writings on medium and subscribe to his storycraft newsletter to get a free copy of the Ultimate Guide To Compelling Antagonism.


If you need help with your drafts, consider coming to a Scene Mastery Boot Camp! There are four scheduled in beautiful California locations this year! Read all about them HERE!

8 Responses to “How To Write A Killer First Draft In 6 Steps”

  1. Priscilla Bettis February 25, 2019 at 3:20 am #

    “Side Glances,” that’s what I find the hardest. Good post!

    • Gilbert Bassey February 25, 2019 at 10:04 pm #

      Hi, Priscilla, thanks for reading.
      I find that I enjoy Side Glances, things start getting hard for me Under The Microscope.

  2. Mahlon Bouldin February 26, 2019 at 9:54 am #

    Excellent post. Thanks.

  3. Grace Topping February 27, 2019 at 5:32 am #

    Excellent article. People who don’t take this approach may have eventual success, but they will have to work harder at it. It’s almost like reading a recipe for stew and going straight to sitting down to a pot of uncooked ingredients. You need to let things stew awhile.

    • Gilbert Bassey March 9, 2019 at 5:22 am #

      Exactly! I like your analogy. Still does my head in why anyone will want to make the already difficult process harder.
      Thanks for reading.

  4. Nancy March 13, 2019 at 8:13 am #

    Great post. I like how your approach encourages time to mull things over and explore a multitude of possibilities before putting things down in concrete terms. It’s like a sandbox for your creativity.

    • Gilbert Bassey March 27, 2019 at 5:48 am #

      Thanks, Nancy. You are right, there’s enough time to think it all through. I’m of the opinion that the state of writer’s block is simply not knowing what to write. With this method, you always know what to write when the time comes.

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