Work in progress: Dealing with your first draft


18 August 2023
Debut travel thriller author Sara Ochs looks at embracing the beauty of the 'half draft'

As an author, it feels a bit shameful to admit this, but there is no part of the writing process that I dread more than that first draft. Starting with nothing but a blank page, some half-strung ideas, and a lofty word goal is unbelievably daunting for me. Editing, the task of shaping a half-crafted product into something workable (and hopefully beautiful)? Much more manageable.

I know I may be in the narrow percentage of authors who dread (fear?) that initial drafting process, but I doubt I’m the only one.

I’ve heard all the idioms: ‘let your first draft be bad’; ‘use the first draft to tell yourself the story’; ‘don’t compare your first draft to other authors’ published works.’ And despite how much I try to take these to heart, the doubt created by staring at that blank page always seems to win out.

But there has been one thing that has worked for me: Learning to start a project by writing a half-draft, or as I sometimes call it, the zero-draft. The half-draft is exactly what it sounds like: a happy medium between a substantial outline and the full first draft. It allows you to flesh out some of the core scenes without having to create a complete, detailed plotline for how the manuscript should unfold.

Of course, there is no one clear ‘best’ way to write a half-draft. As someone who struggles to write linearly, my half-draft generally consists of a smattering of scenes throughout all three acts of my manuscript—some at the beginning, some in the middle, and one or two at the end. Sometimes I’ll know how the manuscript ends by the time I finish my half-draft (as I did when writing my second book); other times, I won’t (as happened when writing my first book, a thriller called The Dive). Some half-drafts may follow my approach—with scenes arcing throughout the plot—while others may prefer their half-drafts to be more linear: writing the beginning of the manuscript, scenes in order, until you reach the middle. There really are no rules for a half-draft. It’s just your first low stakes attempt at becoming familiar with your novel and achieving a healthy word count to boot!

Once you complete your half-draft, you can then go back to the beginning and use your second drafting attempt—or the full draft, as I like to call it—to fill in the gaps. Writing the full draft involves developing characters, expanding on the setting and other descriptions and—of course—drafting all those scenes that you skipped over in the half-draft!

So, what exactly are the benefits of writing a half-draft? Well:

• It’s more manageable: One thing that makes drafting so painful for me is the heightened expectations. When I first sit down to start a project, the finish line—a 95,000-word thriller—is so far out of the realm of what is imaginable, it’s almost laughable. Choosing to start with a half-draft cuts that word count … well, in half! Decreasing that initial goal from 95,000 to 45-or 50,000 is much more achievable. Even just this small shift in thinking does wonders for my mental health and motivation.

• It provides a much-needed change: I choose to end my half-drafts once the exciting newness of the project has worn off and the thrilling end still isn’t in sight. Taking a breather in the soggy middle of the drafting process and returning to the beginning manuscript provides a perfect change of pace and task.

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• It helps you address problem areas more quickly: I can’t imagine that there are many feelings worse than having written a full draft of a novel only to discover that the one plot-point you used in the middle of the manuscript doesn’t work, leaving you to figure out how to rewrite the entire second half of your book. Luckily, half-drafts help avoid this issue. By returning to the beginning and reviewing the scenes you’ve already written, now with the hindsight of where the book is likely to go, you have a second chance at catching those problems before getting lost too deeply in the rabbit-hole they may cause.

• It’s a relief for those authors who prefer editing to drafting: As I mentioned before, I am much more of an editor than a drafter. For those authors who feel the same way, a half-draft lets you combine the best of both worlds. By having some scenes already fleshed out throughout the book in your half-draft you can alternate your work on your full-draft between editing those already written scenes and flouting your creativity in drafting the new chapters.

I’m happy to report that I’ve put these benefits to the test: using the ‘half-draft’ method to write my debut thriller The Dive, as well as my second novel. And honestly, I’m not sure I would have been able to finish either book without it.

Maybe writing that first draft is your favorite part of the writing process. If that’s you, keep doing what you’re doing! But for others, like myself, who are not (and likely will never be) natural drafters, I urge you to try the half-draft method. Who knows, maybe it will even help you get through your first full-length manuscript!

The Dive by Sara Ochs is published by Transworld (£14.99)

If you're looking for advice on taking your manuscript from raw first draft to polished work, read this expert's guide to editing your writing.

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