8 steps to writing your first draft

Many writers find it hard to start writing, and once they do start, after writing a few sentences, they stop and immediately rewrite these sentences until they are perfect. This is a type of procrastination but because it involves writing, it's a hard habit to recognise and then break. Following these 8 steps will help you complete a content-rich imperfect first draft and avoid the trap of getting side-tracked by perfectionism. 


1. Outline your core topic


If you are writing a paper or report, start by outlining the key problems you seek to solve with your project. Briefly outline how they will be (or were) solved, then list the main findings. Develop a broad framework that you can modify and add further detail in later drafts. Write a summary of the what, who, how, where, when, and why?

Don’t try and write perfectly: stick to just writing notes, headings and bullet points that help you understand what direction you are going with your writing. 

2. Identify your audience

What you write and how much detail you provide depends upon who you are writing to, so clearly identify your target audience.
  • What is their background? 
  • Why are they reading your document?
  • What do they already know?
  • What do they need to know?
  • Do you have more than one target audience?
3. Plan with pre-writing

Pre-writing is the thinking, note-taking, outlining, summarising, mind-mapping, brainstorming and question-asking needed to plan and develop your core topic. Pre-writing is where you focus on the big picture while writing your first draft and can include hand-writing and drawing diagrams on a whiteboard or large piece of paper.

Try recording yourself talking about your project or use voice-recognition software to capture additional thoughts and ideas.
4. Make a mess and clean it up in later

The first draft should be messy, rough and amenable to change, allowing you to remould your structure with successive drafts. Write bullet points, sentence fragments, and temporary paragraph headings. Avoid trying to write perfect sentences and paragraphs (polishing). Don’t worry about being repetitive or boring. Avoid making your writing eloquent, stylistic or succinct in the first draft: you can revise and improve your writing as your rework later drafts.

5. Avoid adding minute details

Adding minute details to a specific sub-topic in a first draft can be a form of procrastination from writing about your key points. Aim to produce a first draft that reflects your main ideas without explaining them in minute detail. There is no point adding too much detail in the first draft as you may change your mind about what you want to say. Allowing yourself to change your mind about what you write is another important reason why you should avoid writing perfect sentences in your early drafts.

6. Start writing without engaging your inner critic


Don’t worry if your first draft doesn’t make complete sense. Don’t worry about the reader in a first draft. Don't worry if you're not completely sure about what you want to say or what your final conclusions will be. Give yourself time to develop and improve your thinking as you work through successive drafts. By not writing perfectly in your first draft you are allowing yourself to easily to chop up, delete or dramatically change what you have written. 

7. Don’t stop to do more research

While writing, don’t stop if you are unsure about a particular fact or if you realise your need to look something up. Instead try writing reminder notes to yourself directly in your draft in hard brackets and make time to follow this up later. For example, [I remember that there was a recent report that looked into topic X - look this up] or [ask Luke about those review papers he mentioned during his talk]. Try to do your research before and after each draft. When you allocate time for writing, just write. When you have finished your first draft you can review what you have written and identify topics that need further research.

8. Seek appropriate feedback


When you finish your imperfect draft, seek feedback that is appropriate for what you aimed to achieve. Seek feedback on your key ideas and summary points that outline your core topic. If you follow the protocol of not writing perfect first drafts, ask your colleagues to ignore punctuation, grammar, sentence structure and any lack of details or thorough explanations that can be tackled in later drafts.

and remember...

  • If you give your draft to more than one person for feedback, give the same version to each person and get them to give their feedback separately. Not only is it confusing to read multiple comments and editing on the one document when there is more than one reviewer, some reviewers' opinions may be unduly influenced by someone else's comments.
  • Before you make changes to your first draft, print it out, take it to a cafe and edit it with a pen or pencil. Editing a paper copy of your document can give you a fresh view of what you have written and also break the cycle of making continuous small changes when writing or editing  on screen. It's also easier to view a document as a whole when printed out.
  • Keep both digital and printed copies of each draft so you can quickly retrieve writing that has been previously culled.


© Dr Marina Hurley 2020 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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