Never Look Back

what is his face

First drafts are hard.

When you’re new to this game, everyone tells you that finishing is only the first step, and all the editing and stuff is still to come, and honestly you’re still just a fledgling writer because you finished a first draft. When you’ve been writing a few years, you start to realise: finishing a first draft is huge because first drafts are really hard.

Which is why even deciding to write one is a Big Deal.

But even if you’ve written half a dozen novels before, it can still be hard to stay on track. There are two major temptations when you’re writing a first draft: to self-edit, and to research. Let’s talk about combating those desires.

The desire to self-edit is the main thing that programs like NaNoWriMo counsel you to lock up in a room. It’s the inner editor. I’ve got one. It sounds a lot like JARVIS, but I’m pretty sure that’s because it is JARVIS, who likes to read over my shoulder and make sarky comments about my grammar.

You know what’s actually not that important in a first draft? Grammar. Right. If he doesn’t stop pointing out my double negatives, I’m going to reprogram him.

i will donate you

Self-editing can be destructive in writing first drafts, because you’ll get distracted by rewriting that one scene in your first chapter which didn’t work and next thing you know, you’ve rewritten everything you already did and you haven’t made any progress. And that’s great if you’re a slow, steady drafter, but the fact is, you’re less likely to finish that way.

Sometimes, you’ve got to lock up that inner editor and just write until you get to the end of the draft, messy as it is. Then you can edit to your heart’s delight. So here are some tools to help you.

Write Or Die will help you write for a short period of time. Or a long one, if you’re brave. Set a wordcount goal, set a timer, and write. If you put it on Consequence Mode, you’ll get a nasty noise or picture when you stop writing, whereas Kamikaze Mode will actually start eating your words one by one until you start again. It’ll encourage you to keep going and get a chunk of writing done.

Similarly, ilys doesn’t let you see what you’re doing except the most recent letter (so you can try and figure out if you made a typo, but you’ll end up confusing yourself). You can’t edit anything you’ve written until you hit the wordcount goal you set yourself, and you have to keep going blindly. Personally, I don’t like flying blind, so this doesn’t suit me, but it might suit you if you’re getting stuck on every sentence because you can’t find the perfect word.

By the way, ilys is just one of the resources we recently reblogged on our Tumblr account. Why don’t you follow us for more?

Research is a slightly more difficult one. I get it, you want your book to be good, so you totally need to know exactly the shape of a bullet exit wound fired from a certain angle. Five hours later you’re reading about Peter the Great’s tax on beards in 1695 with no idea how you got there. Or you’re researching male strippers. It kind of depends on your internet habits.*

not the worst thing

Honestly, my biggest piece of advice is do the basic research you need before you start, and then do none until you’re done with your first draft. If you’re convinced something is an error but you don’t have time to look it up, make a note to yourself. This draft is yours.

My preferred method is to put square brackets around the comment and preface is with XX, because that doesn’t come up in other words very often, so I can then run a search for XX at the end and see all the questions I left myself.

It links back to editing: if you’ve forgotten a character’s name, or the name of a place, or you’re not sure whether these two characters have met before, don’t go back and look unless you’re very good at resisting the urge to self-edit while you’re poking around in earlier chapters. Just write. For example:

“Hello!” says Polly. [XX Neighbour’s Name] doesn’t return the greeting, scowling at her. She ignores their grumpy manner and continues on her way into town.

In one of my first drafts, my character worked for Company X. Not because it was a mysterious firm – they ran conferences about music education, mostly – but because I couldn’t think of a name and didn’t want to delay trying to make one up. I’ve had characters who ended up being called [XX NAME] for three chapters because I named them earlier but couldn’t remember what it was.

Looking through earlier chapters counts as research and self-editing, so it’s super important not to do it.

If it’s a more major question take the same approach. [XX is this actually how cancer is diagnosed?] When you get to the end of the first draft, search for those XX comments first, and then you’ll know what it is you need to target in your research prior to starting the second draft.

Hope that’s helped. For those of you doing Camp NaNoWriMo, the team wishes you the best of luck. Let us know your wordcounts in the comments!

and then shawarma

-- Iron Man

*Both of these examples are totally hypothetical, I promise you. These are totally not things I’ve read about recently. Not at aaaaaaall. 


  1. I have a hard time with the no-self-editing part.
    But I really like that XX name. I'll have to use it, because I am always forgetting minor characters' names or places and it takes a lot of time to back track and find them again.

    1. It's a good method. I think it was someone on the NaNoWriMo forums who introduced me to the idea, and it's been useful ever since. Sometimes I also leave author's notes with those -- it's just a marker, like, "This is not meant to be in here!" You could compare it to programming, where you can add a note into the code that's not actually a functioning instruction, just an explanation or reminder. And that makes it sounds like I know more about coding than I do. I really don't know anything.

  2. I always use { } brackets, because I never use them in anything else, so I search for { or } and find the notes I've left myself. Solid strategy.

    1. That's fair enough. I never use square brackets, and I don't know where the curly ones are on a Dvorak keyboard layout, or what they're called when I'm dictating, so square ones are easiest for me. :)