Trick Yourself into Writing the First Draft

First Drafts Are Challenging

You know how exciting it is when you figure out an idea and you want to explain it to someone?

Then, you think about getting the idea on paper, in complete sentences and full paragraphs, and your energy starts to evaporate. 

Thinking about writing a first draft is a bummer! We imagine all the hard work we'll have to do, and we get overwhelmed before we've even started.

But what if we didn't? What if we took the pressure off ourselves? What if we told ourselves we were doing something that was no big deal?

Writing Stress Loves Procrastination

Sitting down to write a first draft is very often when we tell ourselves we just need something before we can start writing. Maybe it's just the right chair, just the right music, or just the right pen or font.

I've got a secret to share with you: Even though it makes sense to put yourself in a good writing environment and use the tools you know work for you, if you're waiting to write until your outer space is perfect, it's probably a sign of your Writing Stress kicking in!

See, Writing Stress loves to creep up on us when it knows we're about to do something hard, like write a first draft. And the longer we wait to start and the more we procrastinate, the stronger and louder Writing Stress grows, telling us that we should just give up because writing is probably the most terrible, awful task ever!!!!

 This is when tricking yourself will make all the difference.

The trick I'm going to show you isn't mean, like tying someone’s shoelaces together. It’s more like when you have to clean up a bunch of trash and you practice shooting hoops to get it all into the garbage or recycling cans. You might even keep score, tricking yourself into thinking you're playing a game. The trash still gets cleaned up, but you don't feel like you did hard work. 

Even though you're smart, Writing Stress isn't! It's easily fooled. If you follow this trick, you'll be able to finish your first draft before Writing Stress even realizes what you're up to. 

Pretend You're Doing Something Besides Writing

First, explore your thoughts. This is not writing. This is fun.

Write the topic at the top of a page—a piece of unlined paper and a Google Doc are my two favorite places. They just seems so casual. So ready for whatever I want to do with them. So “No big deal.”

Now gather your thoughts about the topic. What questions will you ask? What questions will you answer? What do you know about this topic? What categories would you like to/be able to cover? Which categories do you need to cover? What further information do you need? Which details or examples come to mind?

That wasn’t writing: it was word doodling!

Next it’s time for some planning, which, if you notice, is also not writing.

How are you going to organize your ideas? How many sections? How many paragraphs? What is your goal for each paragraph?

This is a time when it’s great to use any templates you have or to follow a model. Are you writing a story or a personal narrative? Use a plot map. 

Are you writing an expository essay? Follow the same template for each body paragraph, repeating steps 2-4 if you have multiple pieces of evidence in a single paragraph.

  1. Topic Sentence: Make a Claim
  2. Provide the Context for the Evidence
  3. Present the Evidence
  4. Analyze the Evidence/Connect it to the Claim
  5. Concluding Sentence: Restate the Claim and Transition to the Next Paragraph

Hmm, that didn’t feel like writing, right? You didn’t even use complete sentences.

Next it’s time for a boring little step called transcribing.

Don’t think too much about this step. It’s really nothing.

All you have to do is look at your plan or outline and think sentences in your head that use the information you see. Once you hear the sentences in your mind, just transcribe them. That is, just write down exactly what you hear. 

Let's say I'm writing a paragraph about cooking, one of my favorite hobbies. I look at my plan and see this:

  1. cooking = creative
  2. mix flavors and invent recipes
  3. Italian chicken --> Mexican: chipotle pepper & lime
  4. keep what works and add substitutes
  5. use my creativity

As  I look at each number, I say a sentence in my mind. Once I hear a complete thought, I transcribe it onto paper like this:

  1. Cooking lets me be creative.
  2. I mix flavors and invent recipes.
  3. I invented a new chicken recipe by adding chipotle pepper and lime to a recipe I knew
  4. I kept the [     ], such as olive oil, salt, onion powder, and garlic powder, but I replaced the lemon juice with lime juice as the acid and the oregano with chipotle pepper as the main flavor.
  5. I get to use my creativity when I cook.

Sometimes you'll hear almost a complete sentence in your mind, but you'll be missing a word or two. That’s OK. For those places, just leave a space in brackets [      ], as I did for #4, or use an ellipsis(...) so that you know something's missing.

The sentences might not sound polished. That’s OK. As long as they're complete thoughts, you did your job!

Transcribing is a tedious activity, so just plow through it and get it done as quickly as you can. You can take breaks when you get to the end of a paragraph or section. The only rule is you’re not allowed to judge what you’re hearing; simply copy it down, no matter how rough it sounds!

Finally, you're ready to rearrange your transcription.

Just take away the numbers, bullet points, or shapes, and put it into a paragraph or paragraphs, like this:

Cooking lets me be creative. I mix flavors and invent recipes. I invented a new chicken recipe by adding chipotle pepper and lime to a recipe I knew. I kept the [     ], such as salt, onion powder, and garlic powder, but I replaced the lemon juice with lime juice as the acid and the oregano with chipotle pepper as the main flavor. I get to use my creativity when I cook.

Your First Draft Is Done

Wait, how did that happen? There wasn't a section called writing!

There wasn't a section where I pulled my hair and freaked out about whether I chose the perfect word or created the most sophisticated sentence.  

I left a blank space. I repeated some words. I included some sentences that I know aren't my best. I didn't even stop to look in a dictionary or ask Google for any interesting synonyms. Guess what? We don't have to worry about any of that stuff when we create first drafts. 

Remember, there's more of the writing process. You can tackle any awkward spots in your next drafts. You can revise and edit until your draft is just how you want it. As long as you've got a first draft, your next drafts will be a piece of cake. And you've got your first draft! Pretty neat trick, huh?

Did this trick work for you? Let me know your process. How do you get yourself to write even when it feels like you don’t want to? Talk about it in the comments below!