How long should the first draft take?

I wrote the first draft of A Letter From Paris in less than three months. Why so quickly? Because it was agonising. The first draft is awful – I still have some foolscap scraps from the printout that I look at and gasp.

It’s not craft – it’s not supposed to be. The first draft is just splattered words, memories and thoughts and exactly what Terry Pratchett said, you telling YOURSELF the story. It’s not until you tell yourself that you can begin to shape it into something that you can tell others.

I believe that you need to write the first draft quickly, because it is so agonising.

But the problem I see with so many writers is that they think it’s supposed to be good, that it’s supposed to make sense from the very beginning.

And so they take years and they freeze halfway through…

Life is messy. Life is complex. When we start writing, we see that our personal story is actually enough for maybe 3 or 4 different books (at least, that’s what happened to me!) and it can be hard to maintain momentum when you get confused. If you expect that first draft to be beautiful and make complete sense, then you will never finish it.

What you need to focus on instead is momentum, and getting the words down in a structure that you can then eventually shape into a compelling story. You get those bones of structure down, and enough words (80 – 110 000) that you can then shape and craft and carve and hone, and you are on track to slice YEARS of your writing time.

Here’s my advice for getting a first draft down quickly:
  • Expect it to be bad. It’s like going for a run when you’ve had a month or years off, and you’re unfit – that first few weeks back on the track is going to hurt, it will only feel good afterwards. You need to get some skin in the game (or some words on the page, before you can make them good!)
  • Do not workshop it with anyone. Do not seek outside opinion. Do not talk about it with your family, your best friend, strangers on Facebook. You are still forming the story in your head and these conversations – particularly with someone who may not know story, or who may only have a tiny glimpse into what you’re trying to achieve – can really sabotage the creative process.
  • Set some very clear intentions and do some very specific exercises before you start, so you know WHY you are writing this book (80% of success is having a strong why).
  • Get yourself a structural blueprint so you don’t give up when the going gets messy (ie. in the middle. There’s a reason it’s called the messy middle!) and focus more on consistency than large bursts of writing. This is because you need to leave some juice in the tank after every writing session, or you’ll burn out.

If you’d like to know more about the structural blueprint I followed to get the (110 000 word) draft of A Letter From Paris written in three months, I invite you to look at my new program: 90 Day Memoir Manuscript. It doesn’t need to take years. This is stuff I dearly wish most writers knew before they attack the first (or second) drafts of a memoir. As my wonderful student Alice Lundy said “I will NEVER write a book the way I did this one. I will follow your advice from the beginning…”

She is exactly who I created this program for: those who have an incredibly important story they wish to tell, who just struggle to find the beginning, the middle and the end of it.

To your writing success (and completion of the first draft!)


Get it all down. Let it pour out of you and onto the page. Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can.”

Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird


About the Author:

I write, read and teach memoir. I'm a paper cut survivor from way back. I love cats, kindness and coffee.

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