How to Complete a Draft

When I first learned to complete drafts, my method was to keep my pen moving. I would literally set a timer, and the rule was that I had to write continuously until it went off, even if what I wrote was stupid. When I got stuck, I would describe the chair the character was sitting in or other random details of the setting until I got going again with the story. By doing that faithfully every day for even as little at 10 minutes, a draft eventually gets completed. I did my first novel draft that way, and it was an incredible experience.

This was a good method, but my experience at this point is that all tricks “expire” eventually, and I have to hunt for new tricks all the time.

Another trick I’ve tried is to slow way, way down. When I get going, I can easily write 2,400 words of (admittedly bad) fiction draft in an hour. I sometimes make the mistake of expecting that level of output. When I’m stuck, I cut my expected output in half and try hitting that goal. If I’m still stuck, I repeat the process until the goal is absurdly attainable. I’ve had times where my goal was literally to get out 100 words in an hour. And I’m not talking about 100 words that I plan to keep. Just 100 words to keep the momentum at least at a trickle. Then I play math games. One hundred words is about 17 words every ten minutes. I focus on that. Anyone can write 17 words in ten minutes, I tell myself. That’s just a sentence. There’s always a way to keep moving if you want to keep moving.

Lately, my method is that I ask myself what in the story I feel able to write. Maybe it’s one sentence at the beginning. Maybe it’s one sentence at the end. Maybe it’s a snatch of dialogue I heard in my head when I first came up with the idea. I was scared to try writing out of order at first because I worried that my drafts would come out too chaotic. Eventually, I figured out that first drafts are always chaotic, and the goal is just to get something on the paper.

Writing is about creating something from nothing, and I think the first trick is to lay down raw material.

Once I’m done writing the parts I’m clear on, I sketch in connective tissue to the extent possible, then let the draft rest as long as I can until I’m ready to edit.

For nonfiction, my writing process tends to be more compressed because I’m dealing with harder deadlines. The current fiction process I described above is actually something I learned from doing nonfiction. When I’m stuck on an article now, I start at the end. Or I start by writing some of the more formulaic sections. For example, for website news articles, it’s common to include quotes from outside sources commenting on the main topic. I find that’s an easy place to start, since it’s a pretty self-contained section. Once I have that laid down, I’m usually a couple hundred words into the article, and the blank page is looking a lot less blank. Maybe I follow that by describing the technology I’m covering. I often do the lede last, since I tend to struggle over it, and it’ll often stop me dead if I try to start there.

I think I’ve said similar things before. My key point is that writing works best when I stay loose. I always have to invent new tricks. It’s an arms race. I have to keep my writing tricks a step ahead of the forces of procrastination and self-doubt that threaten them.

I’d love to hear other people’s tricks, too, if anyone cares to share.

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