What state should a first draft be in?

As someone who’s had an interest in writing for quite a while, I’ve read various books, interviews, blogs and so on detailing different writer’s approaches to how they actually go about putting words on paper. Most of them, naturally enough, focus on how they get to the point of producing their first draft.

Oddly enough, the one thing that seems to be missing from all of the descriptions I’ve seen is a description of what sort of state their first drafts are in i.e. what level of quality it’s in, how ‘finished’ it is.

Is it full of spelling mistakes and repeated words? Is it peppered with clichés and grammar mistakes? Does the lead character’s name change a couple of times as the author changed and rechanged his/her mind, knowing they’d fix it in later versions?

As someone who tends to write by initially doing a ‘brain dump’, just to get all the ideas out before they evaporate and plan to fix the mistakes later, I’d think of that as my first draft. But would ‘real’ authors? Or would they think of my second draft (where I’d fixed many of those obvious problems) as their ‘first’ draft?

I’d be very interested to hear what people consider the accepted state of a first draft especially from published authors who (presumably) need to share first drafts with agents, editors and others.

The first thing you put on paper can be as rough and unfinished as you like. The first thing you show anyone who matters should be as polished as you can manage.

This is true even if the person has begged you to show them an early draft and sworn by their ancestors that they understand it is still rough. If you show them something that isn’t ready, they will panic and/or criticize things that you already know are in need of work. Nothing good will happen.


I don’t know why this should be so. I don’t know of any published writer who would want to expose a first draft to, well, anybody - not agents, publishers, editors, friends or even lovers.*

Perfectly put.

*To answer the OP’s question: I guess what these two posts are really saying is that the first draft is just part of the ongoing personal process, and that’s all. What state it needs to be in should be dictated purely by what the writer needs to get the best ultimate result as efficiently as possible. Some writers write slowly and carefully: for them one draft with some revisions may be sufficient; others “vomit it up” in the famous phrase, and then reshape their work over several subsequent drafts. Whatever suits…

Mr andy,
Do exactly as I say. Clear a space for yourself in the middle of your writer’s room, and stand there. Roll your left trouser leg, up to the knee. Raise your right knee up to your navel. Place the thumb of your left hand in your left ear, and touch the tip of your nose with your right thumb. Now wriggle the fingers of both hands, whilst repeating this incantation: I swear! By all the atrocious syntactical errors, and excruciatingly embarrassing grammatical faux pas, I am ever likely to commit, between now and the launch of my first, 'Worldwide Best-selling, Bodice Ripping, Bonk Busting, Booker Prize Winner, that I will [b][i]never!
ever,ever,ever,[size=150]![/size]submit my first draft to an agent or publisher.


My first draft of my thesis is atrocious. Spelling, grammar, structure - all bad. It is full of in-line annotations to myself (“check this” “citation needed” “what was I saying?” “has this concept been introduced yet?” etc). Every time I read through a section (any section), I make corrections. The only time I’m not editing is when I’m writing.

I have two supervisors. One of them couldn’t care about all that “style” stuff and is just interested in the content (at least that’s what he says). He has agreed to review a draft for content and structure, so I will send him a rough second draft in a couple of weeks (still replete with annotations to myself, but less of them and with most of the clanging errors corrected - missing paragraphs, incomplete sentences, etc).

My other supervisor is different. She, like most of us, will be distracted by every spelling error, change of tense, use of incorrect pronouns and inaccurate citation. Once past those, then she can focus on content and structure. Hence she will get my third draft incorporating the feedback I received on my second draft plus ongoing corrections I continue to make.

Once I have incorporated her feedback, then I will send the fourth draft to a copy-editor (read, “family member who doesn’t know what they’re in for, poor soul”). Hopefully, at this stage, any remaining clangers will be corrected. My supervisors will probably also reread individual chapters at this time. Ostensibly as a favour to me, but more realistically to ensure I have fixed the problems they found in earlier drafts.

This is a simplified outline of my revision process (it will actually be much messier than this). So in reply to the thread topic: no-one but me will see my first draft. Even chapters that I have sent to my supervisors for initial feedback have been edited by me first - they never see the first draft.

I think there is some consistency to responses here: First drafts can be in any old state because no-one will see them but you.

Thanks to everyone for their responses.

Yes, there is a consistency between them, which seems to amount to: First Drafts can be at any state (of ‘quality’ or ‘finish’) as only you will see it in that state (I must have misunderstood when I thought Authors send their first drafts to others – I guess it must be after it’s in a (much more) finished state).

That does beg the question then, so what is the definition of a first draft? My gut feeling is that it’s the first point when the whole ‘story’ has been completed. Whether it’s fiction or non fiction, the complete narrative must be there to be considered a first draft, whatever the level of ‘finish’ in the actual writing.

Does that sound right?


For more on what to do after the first draft, here’s Holly Lisle: http://hollylisle.com/index.php/Workshops/one-pass-manuscript-revision-from-first-draft-to-last-in-one-cycle.html

Or if you’ve got time to read a book, Elizabeth Lyon’s “Manuscript Makeover” is good.

I quote Hemingway (aside from the fact that he shot himself–probably because someone got hold of one of his first drafts–this is what I remember best of the man):

“First drafts are sh*t.”

He didn’t use the asterisk.

I wholly agree with him. Not even my office bunny gets to see my first draft. I know what she would use it for.

A first draft is something your brain barfs on the page. I contains a lot of potential.

Yes. If I said “I have a complete first draft,” that would be what I meant.

However, that doesn’t mean the second draft won’t radically upend the narrative…

In the end, it doesn’t matter what you call it because – as discussed – no one but you is going to see it anyway.


:open_mouth: :confused: I thought, you, were the office bunny?

The idea of a “first draft” or indeed first anything is relative.

Someone who has a book published after 20 years of trying will have that book called a “first novel” regardless of how many unfinished or rejected manucripts sit on his hard drive.

Likewise, the term “first draft” is movable. The question is, to whom is it the first viewing? A novelist’s own first draft may be a literal first; an unedited document with not so much as a read through having taken place. You might also use the term “first draft” to mean the most mature draft that an author can produce by himself; it is the first copy that will be seen by someone other than himself, so is in very solid shape but has not yet had the benefit of an editor’s comments or a proofreader’s keen eye.

I suspect it is this later interpretation that caused the initial confusion.

From a personal persepective, I go through several ‘sweeps’ of a chapter before I move onto the next:

  • spider diagram notes handwritten in a notebook
  • notes put into linear format on computer
  • notes turned into prose
  • prose read and alterations made to content, structure and pace as appropriate
  • prose re-read and corrections made to language, grammar and polish
  • One more re-read, unless I have a general ‘unease’ in which case I go back a few steps

At this point I would consider myself at my own “first draft” stage for a chapter and move on to the next one. I could share it with someone at this point without embarassment, although chances are it will still get significant changes once the whole thing is finished and I do my ‘second’.

This is probably a whole lot of inefficiency, but then I’m a hobbiest and I’m in it for the fun of the writing. Actually finishing a manuscript seems largely superfluous to my enjoyment.



:laughing: :laughing: :laughing:

From my outsider’s perspective, I think it really makes a huge difference if you are submitting a manuscript for consideration to a new agent or publisher, or if you already have an established working relationship with an editor. I follow blogs and vlogs of various people, a significant portion of which are authors; one of them is a Young Adult author named John Green, who recently put up a video that gives a glimpse into his working relationship with his current editor. His explanation seems to imply that his editor and he work from a very rough draft, which may or may not contain a lot of grammar issues, and definitely have too many Fridays in them, all the way through the final copy-editing draft.

But if you are yet to establish yourself, I wouldn’t hope for that kind of situation with an as-yet un-known agent or editor. But the video is enlightening and somewhat funny (the editing process discussion begins after the 1-minute mark):
youtube.com/watch?v=oLwJT-Hh … feedu_more

How complete is your first draft? That depends on the author, I’m afraid.

I guess I differ from just about everybody here. My first draft, written over six weeks starting on 1 November (NaNoWriMo2010) was given to two alpha readers; both of whom really liked the book. There were a few grammar problems throughout and a few issues with the plot; but not sh*t. I’m currently on the edit (I waited five months to start it). My first draft word count was 93K, and I’m at 95K now. A great deal of what I wrote in the first draft is still there. In fact, as I read through the draft, I realized that it was pretty strong.

I’m a planner, not a pantser. So, I had a really strong outline before I started—and the characters still managed to surprise me.

We each apply the technical aspects of writing differently. Some people write a draft to figure out what the novel would be; then write a second draft to get it to a readable state. I write a solid first draft.

So, if you define a first draft as “the draft that helps you figure out your novel,” then my outline would be my first draft. I know there’s at least one self-help writer’s book that suggests just that…that the outline is the first draft. I certainly never show my outline to anybody. The great thing about my outlines is they are about 1000 words that map out a book of 95kwords to 135kwords.

Let me turn the question back to you—what do you think a first draft would be?

As I mentioned earlier in the thread, I’ve come to the conclusion, based on gut feeling and solidified by reading the other comments that…

it’s the first point when the whole ‘story’ has been completed. Whether it’s fiction or non fiction, the complete narrative must be there to be considered a first draft, whatever the level of ‘finish’ in the actual writing.

But I think I may have to refine it a little as your idea of an outline being the first draft would count according to my definition which, I have to say, doesn’t feel right to me. For a long trip, planning your journey is a necessary step but can’t really count as the journey itself until you’ve loaded up the car, got stuck in traffic for hours, got lost twice and finally made it to the destination.

Perhaps I should say: The first draft is the first complete, full length version that includes the whole ‘story’. Whether it’s fiction or non fiction, the complete narrative must be there to be considered a first draft, whatever the level of ‘finish’ in the actual writing.

First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner puts the opposite argument, because her first draft is incontrovertibly an outline, albeit an all-singing, all-dancing outline complete with every bell and whistle including a kettle, an ejector seat and a widescreen TV. But worth reading if you’re starting out; it’s a point of view.

I’m coming to think the definition of a first draft is at least partially individual. What counts as one to one person won’t necessarily be the same thing for another.