The Writing Process: A Guide for Non-Writers – Part Two

In my last blog post, I talked about preparing to write a book, which is the first part of the writing process. You can find it here. Today, I’ll be continuing with the next stage of the writing process: writing the first draft. This, I’m sure, is the bit non-writers think of when we say we’re writing a book. The bit where we sit down at our desks with huge smiles on our faces and a coffee by our side, and just let the words pour out of us. We’re excited about this idea and this story, and everything from the overarching plot down to every last comma is perfectly aligned in our heads. Now we just need to write it all down, then it’ll be ready for the world to read and love!
Sounds too good to be true, right? That’s because it is. Although writing the first draft may be the least complicated part – the only step to it is “sit your butt down and WRITE DAMMIT” – that does not mean it is easy. A writer faces many challenges while writing the first draft. Many writers quit at this point.

But why, you ask! Why is writing a first draft so difficult? I’d like to answer this question with a case study. This is not the experience of one writer, but instead is an amalgamation of common experiences of writing a first draft.

You have been planning your book for several months now. You knew when you flipped through your notes the night before that you were ready to start writing it. You were excited about it, but you decided to leave it until today. A good night’s rest can only help.

Now you sit in front of your computer with your morning coffee already half-empty, drumming your fingers against the desk. On the screen, you have opened a Word document. The cursor blinks at you. The page is such a bright white you’re not sure you dare stain it with words.

You flick back to your outline. What was supposed to happen in the first scene, again?

You type a few words, and then delete them. According to all the writing advice you’ve ever read, the first line is make-or-break. It is essential that you hook the reader. This line has to be amazing. You stare at the screen for a while longer, playing with potential first lines in your head and grimacing at all of them.

You thought of a good first line last week. It was so good you knew you’d remember it. You feel like smacking your head against the desk. Why on earth didn’t you make a note of it?

Maybe listening to music that emulates the mood of the scene will help inspire you. You spend an hour trying to find something suitable, only to then decide that music is too distracting. You turn it off.

Then you realise you need the toilet. There’s no way you’ll be able to write while needing the toilet. On the way back from the bathroom, you decide to have a snack. You spend half an hour in the kitchen.

When you finally get back to work, you decide the only thing to kick your bad case of Blank Page Syndrome in the butt is by taking a different piece of writing advice. This one tells you that the first draft is always going to be terrible. You take a deep breath and put your hands on the keyboard, then you type the first thing that comes into your head. You cringe at it, but you refuse to go back and edit it.

Instead, you force yourself to write the next sentence, then the next. You can make it good later, you remind yourself in an attempt to pacify your inner editor. It doesn’t really work. There’s still a voice telling you that you really ought to be varying your sentence lengths to keep it interesting, and that’s a terrible word choice, and for God’s sake would you stop telling instead of showing?

Occasionally, you cave to your inner editor, but mostly you manage to ignore it. Somehow.

Eventually, you start to get into it. The words come faster, now, and they’re flowing better. Your inner editor quietens down a bit because there isn’t as much to annoy it. Every so often, though, the inspiration dries up again – you can’t work out what you should say next, and your outline offers you no help. You turn to Facebook – or whatever your choice of social media is – for entertainment. You get sucked in for a good twenty minutes or more before you remember to return to your writing.

You manage 1,400 words that day. Not bad, but you could’ve done better.

The next week or two aren’t too bad. Your story is still just at the beginning; maybe nothing bad has happened to your characters yet, maybe you’re still setting the scene, but you’re definitely still enjoying writing. You’re so excited to keep going, to forward the plot, to see your characters grow on the page before you. You still get stuck, your inner editor is still criticising you, and you still find yourself demotivated, uninspired, or distracted at many points. You struggle with representing your characters on the page, and maybe you write too much description and not enough dialogue (how realistic even is your dialogue, anyway?), or the other way around. But despite it, you carry on, writing somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 words on a good day. Some writers can even manage 5,000 words or more in a day.

But of course, there are bad days too. On those days, you might write just 500 words if you’re lucky.

Then you get towards the middle. The “first act” is over; the action leading up to the climax begins now. If you were a “pantser”, you might get stuck around now; you would know where your characters needed to be at the end of the second act, but you wouldn’t be sure how to get them there. Maybe you’d stop writing for a while as you try to figure out where to take your manuscript next, or maybe you’d plough onwards regardless, and sort out which scenes are even necessary and which order they should be in later.

It’s at about this point that you hit your first plothole. Your outline helpfully tells you that “your characters get out of this situation, somehow”. But it just doesn’t seem possible. You leave your writing for a while – maybe a few hours, but maybe as long as days – and try to work it out. You talk out the problem with trusted friends, or maybe you write out all the possibilities and all your thoughts regarding each of them. Maybe you find a possibility that works, or maybe you end up having to change all of the rest of your outline due to the change in the scene’s outcome.

It’s also at about this point that you start getting writing anxiety. You start doubting that your writing is any good, that your concept is interesting, that your plot is plausible or exciting. You worry what people will think of your novel if anyone ever reads it, and you wonder what the point of finishing it is.

Or maybe you’re just getting bored of still telling yourself the same story that you told yourself over and over during the planning stages. Or maybe you’ve thought of a shiny new idea, and you’d rather be thinking about that than tapping out word after word after word of a story you already know the ending to. Or maybe you can’t believe you’ve written so much, and yet still have so far to go – it makes you feel so tired.

Between the plotholes, the anxiety, and the frustration, you have more bad writing days than good writing days.

At some point, you manage to get into the swing of things again. The tension and excitement are building: you’re getting towards the climax of your story. The end is in sight! But it also brings with it new questions for your inner editor to throw at you again and again and again. Are you increasing the tension enough, and at a good pace? Is your foreshadowing too obvious, too subtle, too late, too soon? And of course, you’re still running into plotholes – both small ones that only affect part of one scene, and big ones that may affect your entire book.

And then – finally – you reach the high point. Either you race through it, full of adrenaline, or you labour over every word and every sentence, agonising over how best to portray the scene(s) that everything has been leading up to.

The resolution is slow-going. You’ve been writing for weeks – months, even – and you’ve already written the part that you were so excited to write. Now you just need to tie up all the loose ends. It sounds like such a small task, but without the promise of writing something exciting spurring you on, you find that you have little inspiration. The sentences that you do manage to write feel like you’re just going through the motions. You just want your book to be over already.

Once you finish, you follow popular writing advice and leave it for a while before going back to it. You read through it from start to finish, cringing at the thought of someone else reading your awkward dialogue, your repeated sentences, your bad descriptions. You’re not even sure you’re happy with your plot or your characters. You may have completed a first draft, but first drafts are rough drafts. It’s going to take a lot of work before you even consider letting your story see the light of day.


I would say that most writers experience at least some of the things described here – blank page syndrome, the inner editor, anxiety, distractions, plotholes… And this is also a best case scenario.
In our case study, the writer is a full-time writer and gets chance to write every day, which makes them less likely to lose their focus or the flow of their story. They also don’t have other obligations such as school, university, a day job, or someone dependent on them for care to allow them much less time and energy to write. Neither do they have writers’ block or any health issues, mental or physical. I’m sure you can understand how any of these things – never mind numerous ones together – can make writing a book much more difficult and take much longer.
I’d also like to note, here, that every writer takes a different amount of time to write a first draft. For some people, 10,000 words in a day is perfectly manageable, while for others, 100 words is more than enough. A great example of this is NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is for participants to write 50,000 words – the length of an approximately 200-page-long novel – in thirty days. This equals 1,667 words per day. Many writers across the globe take part every year, relishing the challenge, while others simply refuse – they don’t enjoy forcing themselves to write so much so quickly. Others, however, like to aim to double their NaNoWriMo word counts and write 100,000 words in a month. It just depends on the writer and how they prefer to write.

That’s about it for writing the first draft! Let me know your thoughts in the comments. In my next post I’ll be talking about the editing stage of the writing process! See you then!

Click here to read Part Three!


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