For a long time I would edit chapters as I wrote them, to make them as complete as possible. Unfortunately this often resulted in me running out of steam and never actually finishing them.

I've recently started trying to allow myself to write rougher first drafts in the thought of cleaning, editing etc on the next pass.

However I'm not sure how much effort / time I should be putting into writing that rough draft.

For instance, I have a chapter that contains a new couple discussing a good deed a waiter performs. As a means of the couple getting to know each other. At this stage I don't really know how that conversation will progress, and would need to put time into making it feel right

Should I quickly placehold the highlights of that conversation? or try to write it in full? or something else...

  • What happens (in the text or in your head) that makes you want to edit? Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 20:22
  • It is usually that thing in my head that says 'that's pretty awful, you can't write that' So I want to modify it until it feels right to me. When I write something I want it to be at a stage that I'm happy with it. I have recently been working on ignoring that impulse! This question is probably about gauging where to draw the line between needing more story detail and saying that'll do and moving on.
    – Michael B
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 20:32
  • My answer to a recent post on Academia.SE is somewhat related to this. Context differs a bit, but rationale is comparable.
    – hBy2Py
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 13:12
  • 2
    That's a nice answer Brian I did like the "it's also typically a terrible waste of time to refine a manuscript too far ahead. You may find you've spent a couple dozen hours wordsmithing text that never finds its way onto an editor's desk." I imagine we've all had moments of doing a really nice bit of writing that has ultimately needed to be scrapped because it didn't fit - or is that just me!
    – Michael B
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 13:25

7 Answers 7


Placehold the highlights. Write the notes of what you want to accomplish.

Beth: Wow, that was really nice of the waiter.

Alanna: Do you think the boss will punish him for that?

they discuss if they should give him a big tip to make sure the boss doesn't dock him. Alanna wants to give the biggest tip she can afford; Beth thinks a large but not insane tip is enough. Show how Alanna is generous/impulsive, Beth more cautious. Lay pipe for second fight in Act II. End result is that waiter gets a tip somewhere between big and insane, so neither B nor A is quite satisfied.

Remember: Alanna should mention her sister in Nevada who's a waitress. Beth counters that she waited tables briefly in HS. Alanna will be surprised at this.

You can go back later and actually write the scene out. As you're working on the rest of the book, if lines of dialogue come to you (I tend to write pages and pages of it... in my head, while I'm on the treadmill), go back and jot them down in the same half-assed fashion.

Once you get to the end of the book, then you can go back and flesh out these holes.

  • 4
    That moment when you realize you've been doing it wrong for years. +1
    – Cat
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 23:52
  • 1
    This is an excellent answer! and I imagine it will become the foundation of how I'll attempt to write going forward. - I'll leave it unanswered for a while though, incase anyone else has any other thoughts to add - @Eric yeah, I've just realised that too!
    – Michael B
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 12:51
  • 1
    I think that the main point of a first draft is to map your territory. Get down the big pieces and how you want them connected. See how the whole thing feels and and what works overall. Later you can go back and refine it, but then you have a whole thing to look at and the perspective that gives you. It's also important to just let your creative ideas flow. When you switch into analytical mode to improve things, it stops that flow. It's a right brain/left brain thing.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 2:14

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, writes about starting with a "shitty first draft." That is, use your first draft to simply spew your ideas onto paper. This is the creative part of your writing. Let it all out, regardless of consistency, grammar, coherence. Later drafts are where you form that mass of crap into brilliance.

  • 3
    This. The incoherence and poor spelling of my first drafts is sometimes such that I have a hard time comprehending what I spewed.
    – hBy2Py
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 2:47
  • 1
    I think you're doing it right, Brian. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 12:49
  • 1
    In the same vein, here's a quote attributed to Hemingway: "Write drunk, edit sober." Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 12:52

Continually editing what you are writing can mean you never get anything finished. Just churning out stuff that you are never going to use in the end doesn't help particularly either.

What I do personally may help you, but everyone is different. Assuming I have a basic plot outline I try to just get the short story, play, article, ect. down on paper. If, as I am writing, I suddenly think of an idea that would be good later or earlier, or if I think of a problem, I just put an asterix and a note to myself that something needs to change and then get on. When I come back to the writing and I don't feel a great deal of 'inspiration' I deal with the notes I have left myself -- I have something to write and it is a way to make it better.

As well, when I start a writing session I look back at what I wrote last time and edit it if necessary, or if I think it needs major revision leave it and write a note about what needs to be done. Then I get on with writing the next section.

  • Part of my plan for trimming my drafts down is to start using metadata more, to find a way to adding notes, instructions for later, etc
    – Michael B
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 20:34
  • @MichaelB - if you're using a computer, that's what hypertext as invented for. If you have Linux, check out zim zim-wiki.org/index.html. If not, check out Scrivener. It has been discussed extensively in this community.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 2:30
  • @Joe I tried Scrivener once, and it didn't really suit how I write. I like text files I can hack around with! (I occasionally just write in Notepad) But then being able to copy that text into things like google docs / word / github for editing / version tracking. - I do actually have a question I'm considering asking related to pure text file metadata, to see if its just me!
    – Michael B
    Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 15:52

Placeholders. (I'm explicitly focusing on my own reaction on this first point, because what I'm saying is very much a matter of personal taste.) I shudder at the idea of leaving placeholders in a manuscript. That impulse means that I've lost contact with the story and with the character. I'm no longer experiencing it. Instead, it's me as writer, from outside the story, trying to control it.

And when I come back later to fill in the placeholders, I always feel as if I'm more in authorial or editorial mode than in creative voice. I'm not sure whether that affects what I write, but it sure does affect how I feel when I'm writing.

Things go better when I dive right in and write the thing, rather than leaving a placeholder. If it doesn't work out, I can always come back to it later, once I see where the story is going.

The thing is, I'm almost always pleasantly surprised (either right then or later) by what I wrote. Often, without knowing it at the time, I put in some seemingly throwaway detail that turns out later to be significant. Or I write a line that jumps out at me and tells me what direction the story is going.

Practice. If you could more quickly get the words to the point where you are satisfied with them, you would spend less time fiddling with them. That was the reason I asked (in my comment) what triggers you to edit. If you notice patterns in the kinds of things that trigger you to fiddle rather than moving on, and if you could get better at those things, you would spend less time fiddling and more time writing the rest of the story.

So identify the most common triggers. Pick one trigger, identify what element of craft it is about, and practice it.

Do your scene openings not draw readers in? There are books and articles about that. Find a story that you loved, that pulled you in, and analyze how the writer did that. Then practice those things.

Do your scene endings not compel readers to turn the page? There are books and articles about that. Find a story that you couldn't put down, and analyze how the writer did that. Then practice those things.

Then pick another trigger. Study it. Analyze stories that do it well. Practice it.

With deliberate practice, you'll get better and faster at the things that are slowing you down.

Of course, your critical voice may simply raise the bar, but that's a whole other issue.

Critical Voice. Your critical voice loves you dearly. It wants nothing more than to keep you safe. It has an astounding capacity to imagine dangers. And it has an even more astounding capacity to focus your attention on every possible danger that it can imagine.

The problem is that our critical voice appears to have absolutely no capacity to distinguish between its imagined dangers and reality. It is afraid of everything. Deathly afraid.

So assess the dangers yourself. If you were to leave this bit of text alone (for now):

  • What is worst thing that could happen?
  • What is the best thing that could happen?
  • What is most likely to happen?

You can ask these questions about anything your critical voice wants you to fear: What if I were to send this to an editor or agent? What if I were to publish it, with my name right there in huge letters on the cover?

Most of the time, I don't have to go beyond that first question. When I figure out the worst thing that could really happen, it comes nowhere near justifying the fear that my critical voice would have me feel.

Your critical voice loves you and wants to keep you safe. But it is afraid of daisies.

  • 1
    My triggers are generally more about the deliberations, so in the example above I could quite easily spend a day on a few hundred words of dialogue between the couple, and possibly a day or two contemplating what the good deed could be. I can see the benefit of a placeholder for those parts, because there is every chance I'll go away and ponder them and fill them in later.
    – Michael B
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 22:13

I used to have a terrible problem with over editing my work. Eventually, I would get frustrated that I was constantly working on beginnings and never got to the "good stuff" in the middle. It eventually led to severe writers block.

After several years, I got a story that was so vivid in my head, I had to get it out. I wasn't thinking about writing a book. I just knew that I had to write out what was going on in my head or else I'd never sleep again. I was thinking about it that much! It was almost as if I weren't trying to write a new story. I was just transcribing a movie that I was watching.

So I just started writing furiously for several hours a day. I was trying to just get the events themselves down before I forgot them or I got bored. Sometimes, I'd write one sentence that represented an entire chapter's worth of story. Instead of my usual style of procrastinating by doing research before I wrote something, I'd write garbage like, "So this big explosion happens and I should do some research to make it realistic. But after all the details, the rest of the story will go like this."

Sometimes I'd write mini scenes that would never get into the story if I tried to publish it. The protagonist wouldn't witness the event, so it wouldn't be part of the narrative. But writing it helped me figure out exactly what the characters around her were thinking at the time and their actions made more sense to me. The supporting characters got stories of their own. They had real personalities and sometimes, I'd have to change parts of the story to make it believable to me that these characters had good reasons for what they were doing.

If I changed my mind about an event or character, I'd add in my new synopsis, but I'd not erase or edit the old event or character, in case I wanted to change back to an older version.

Now I'm well past the middle of my "junk draft" and further along writing a story than I've been before! It's very ugly in this form. I'm not letting anyone read it because it's not at all meant to be read by anyone but me. This is just helping me get the whole story out so I can polish it up and do the real writing later.

There's so much that can happen when you do it this way. I scoffed when people said that their stories took a mind of their own. But writing like this has shown me that it really happens. I had a minor supporting character age himself 40 years younger and made himself the primary villain. And then he refused to be a real villain, but still fought against the protagonist. Now it's very ambiguous about good vs evil. There's even a chance that my protagonist is a villain herself who went down a too dark path to fight for the good cause.

I was used to writing fairly stock plots. I can't believe that my story turned out this complex! I blame ditching the editing and let everything fly wild and free. I'll never go back to the old way. This is great!

  • I think my problem was always more that I do write everything flying wild and free. I need to reign that in to keep myself at least a little focused. - saying that, that is a nice answer. Thanks
    – Michael B
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 6:25
  • I don't quite understand why you think you write wild and free. In your original post, you specifically state that you edit each chapter as you wrote them and you always run out of steam. Editing as you go is about as unwild and unfree as you can get. When I said wild and free, I meant no editing at all, except fixing autocorrect creativity and whatnot. Seriously. Just get it down as rough, dirty and fast as possible. And if you change your mind about something, add it in, but don't take the old stuff out! Everything gets written down and there's no looking back until it's done.
    – Keobooks
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 1:10
  • I mean wild and free as in I rarely know where the story is going to go after the next paragraph. But the writing that I reach the next paragraph with needed to be well written and I am always very conscious of my mental scoring of the quality of the writing to that point. That is the part that this question was about.
    – Michael B
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 1:37
  • Ahh. I guess we'll just have to disagree about what wild and free means. It's no biggee. You asked how rough should a rough draft be? I still say that there's no such thing as too rough. If you're editing as much as you claim to be right at the very beginning. you risk greatly hampering your creativity and giving yourself a severe case of writer's block. A rough draft does not need to be well written. If you work too hard at making it good, you will always run out of steam. You will never finish it. I've been there. Trust me.
    – Keobooks
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 2:22
  • This is an interesting description of your process. I don't understand how it answers the question though.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 2:07

as an addendum to the other answers here, especially Lauren Ipsum's excellent post

I think the answer here is a lot to do with that much trod advice of show don't tell

The first draft should simply be about telling the story as succinctly as possible. With rough pointers to the finer details of the characters behaviour.

In future drafts you take the story you have told and convert it into something that you show.

Personally I am trying to retrain myself to write quickly, so if I've got a scene in my mind that I can write the show part for, then I'll get that down, otherwise the aim should be (IMO!) to tell the story, ignoring the need to try to convert that into a show.


Consider using mind mapping to express and organize your creative thoughts before you start writing. On a blank sheet of paper, you write words, short phrases, or drawings to express ideas and use lines to represent relationships between those ideas. You can make it up as you go, or you can adopt one of the standard approaches to mind mapping.

One benefit of mind mapping is that you can express ideas quickly and easily, much faster than writing sentences and paragraphs. Another advantage is that you can get an instant overview of your thoughts by running your eyes across the map. This overview makes it easier to form new connections between older content and fresh content. I like to call it "Creation and Synthesis on overdrive".

It's harder to explain than it is just to do it. All you need is a pen/pencil and paper. Get comfortable doing it manually before you try any of the free software that's out there.

  • You may want to expand on your answer a little more, tying it more thoroughly to the question (e.g. after organizing, then you do X). Commented Dec 31, 2015 at 10:03
  • I have tried mind mapping software, but I think my mind works in sentences and paragraphs! I'm more comfortable writing a few hundred words to describe an idea than to mind map it (which could be part of the problem) I think a lot of this is about understanding how your own mind works and what does / doesn't work for you.
    – Michael B
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 6:22
  • 1
    Sure. People have different cognitive types. The important thing is for you to work out a light-weight and flexible method for trying out variations on your ideas. For some, this means using index cards, for others, outlines. The key is to avoid polishing or getting stuck in your first draft. Use a kitchen timer to limit yourself, get it done, put it away. Sleep on it. The next day, create a NEW empty file. Rewrite the draft from scratch, relying on your early morning thoughts and memory. Your mind will have reorganized the content and dropped a lot of the cruft.
    – rolfedh
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 13:41

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