To state the obvious, as I believe I am rather good at doing, the beginning of any piece of writing is the first draft. Sometimes, it’s also the end, either due to unwillingness to redraft, or just because the writer doesn’t consider it salvageable.
There are different ways of going about creating a first draft. Some people like to plan it all out, make an outline to follow, whereas others just go for it, maybe with a rough plan in their head, but nothing on paper, and write it all straight out.
I’ve traditionally been part of the latter group. Sometimes I’ve just made it all up as I go along, while sometimes I’ve had a start and an end point in mind, and maybe a couple of other things I want to happen at some point. I’ve held the view that it’s easier to write when there’s not a set of stepping stones to work by, and that the extra effort that will almost inevitably be required to revise a first draft written this way is worth it for getting it out.
I still believe this is a valid way of doing things, as long as the writer understands that there will be a lot to fix in the finished draft. That’s true whichever way you choose to write it, but if it’s been planned out in advance, there probably are going to be less issues with continuity and contradictions. I admit, sometimes I’ve forgotten something I wrote earlier in a story, or changed my mind about something and decided to just plough on and finish, and fix the resulting descrepency in the rewrite. But if this is the way that works best for you, then go for it.
What I am going to advise, is that if you’ve never used an outline – or even if you always have, this may go both ways – then it might be helpful to try doing it the other way, even just once. How do you know which way works better for you if you’ve only ever used one?
Because, as it turns out, I actually seem to work better with an outline. I admit, I’m not fully in the habit of making a proper one all the time – I’ve got myself used to just jumping straight into it and I’ve not completely escaped that. But I’m trying to, because when I have, it’s worked better for me. I’m sure that won’t be the same for everyone, but you find out by trying.
What I think it is that makes things work better for me is that I do have a tendency to have bursts of time in which I just write write write, where I’m feeling really inspired and get quite a lot done in a short period of time. But then I just hit a certain point and suddenly… it’s all gone. I have no idea what to do. Sometimes this is because I’ve just run out of steam, and can be cured by taking a short break to work on something else while the inspiration for that story recharges, and thats alright.
Other times I just don’t know what to do, I’m not sure how to write a certain scene or pass a certain obstacle. In those situations it’s most helpful to me to just sit and get lost in my own thoughts for a while. I’ll usually find an idea of what to do eventually. I’m not advising that as a method, because I imagine it’s something that would not work at all for a lot of people. But the problem itself is an area where an outline can have an advantage, because it makes you work out how things will go beforehand. If you’re going to write your characters into a situation, having the outline makes me, at least, more likely to work out the way out of said situation first, then change things accordingly if it turns out there actually isn’t a way out. Once you’ve expended time on writing a scene then it’s harder to go back and delete and completely rewrite a load of it. An outline takes some extra effort to begin with, but it does help prevent situations like this.
But there’s other times I just lose all my inspiration that are simply because I don’t really want to write a certain bit, for whatever reason, and I have to force myself through. And in general, when you’re doing something you don’t really want to, it helps when there’s something beyond that that you do want to do, something you can focus on. And when I’m writing, most of the time I do want to write, because I wouldn’t be writing at all otherwise. It’s just a few scenes I won’t want to do. If I know exactly what I’m writing once I have done those parts, and the next bit is something I really want to get written up, then it’s easier to get through the difficult part than if I only had a vague idea of where I was going after. One scene may be difficult or depressing to write, but if there’s a specific fun or sweet scene after that I’m looking forward to doing, I can get through it easier.
Then there’s the last resort of hitting a road block in writing – my final resort, that is, I know others do it as a matter of course. Just skipping ahead and writing in the difficult scene later. The problem with doing this is you have to connect it into the story later, but if you knew from the start how everything was going to go then that should be minimised. Then it’s more likely to be like putting in the last piece of a jigsaw, easy and clear.
And then there’s poetry.
I’ve traditionally done my first draft of poems just off my head, trying to get the lines roughly the same length and rhyming. This has served me fairly well, I’ve got poems originally written this way polished up. Now I like to do a bit of planning, even if it’s just working out what words I’m going to use. This stops me writing a line then spending ages trying to think of a servicable rhyme when there actually isn’t one. My poems are a lot shorter than my stories so they don’t require as much planning, and as I’ll usually write the first draft in one go I’m much less likely to forget something I wanted in there. Sometimes I get lines written out to be slotted together.
But I went through a phase where I just wrote out the first drafts without making any attempt to get a structure to them. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do at first, but then when I came to polishing them up, I hit issues. Where there was an awkward rhyme, I could work to make it less awkward, where the lines didn’t quite match up in syllables, I could adjust them until they did. Where there was no kind of structure or rhythm, I didn’t have the faintest clue where to begin. It was disheartening, and most of those poems got abandoned or redone from scratch.
And that applies to stories too. Just from a motivation standpoint, it’s easier to get started editing the more you’ve got to work with. It’s simply disheartening when there seems to be nothing or almost nothing that can be kept. And an unplanned first draft will usually be messier than one written to an outline.
Again, everyone is different. Some people work best one way, others another. This appears to be how I work best. But if you’ve only tried one way of writing, it might be good to try a different way, just to see, and this applies to more than planning. That’s the real point of this post, outlines are just the example I’ve used because that’s what was on my mind. But some of the things that I considered advantages to not planning are now looking like they may have been something of a hindrance.
So don’t be afraid to try different methods in writing, even if you’ve stuck with one way for a long time. You never know how a change might go.