Bad Advice Wednesday: Writing the First Draft

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


I just finished spending a couple of months writing a draft of a new book and I thought I’d focus today’s bad advice on the routines of writing that I tried to put in place during that time. The draft I just finished, technically a first draft but not really (I’ll explain), is the most tense, scariest, most exciting and pleasurable and life-sucking. The reason for all this is it is the part where you make something from nothing. For me this means there has usually been a long period of gestation before I begin—of reading, travelling, brooding, journal-writing, osprey-watching, note-taking, outline-making, file-putting in, tape-recording during walks, anxiety attack-having—but when I do begin, I usually really blast off. 


This time around my daily schedule during the draft went like this:

4:30/5:00: Get up/feed dog and cat/boil water for tea/make coffee for later/stretch back/eat banana

5:00/5:30: Write

7:40: Drive Hadley to school and get Latte.  

8:20—11:30/12: Write

12:00—1:30: Walk Missy (yellow lab) in woods at school or Carolina Beach State Park and talk into tape recorder: notes and sometimes spoken draft of tomorrow’s work

2:00/3:00 Read NYTimes. Bath. Nap

4:00/5:00: Beers and reading in the shack behind my house. Reading sometimes related to the book, sometimes not. Occasionally this segment becomes a third writing session, but only occasionally, and less so as I get older.


6:00: Dinner. Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Nina and Hadley (since her school ended)


9:00/9:30: Fall asleep after watching first quarter of NBA playoffs.


A few things to note about this schedule:


1. It doesn’t account for the normal obligations of life. There is always other stuff that butts in. For one thing there is usually some sort of job that has to be factored in to all this. Out of necessity, I have written these drafts in between the cracks of school and other obligations over the last decade but ideally this should be the draft where you somehow find some real time, the writing retreat or at the very least vacation-time draft.  For me this means Christmas or summer vacations.  


2. Even on a bad day you put in five hours at the desk. This adds up. Math isn’t my strong suit, but even I can see that this means 50 hours every ten days, or 150 a month, or 300 in two months. I’ve been called a fast writer but do anything for 300 hours and you’ll get something done.  Also, I sat down like this, as much as life would allow it, back when I was younger and a slow writer, and I feel like all that sitting is what has made me fast.


3. Depending on your own temperament, my schedule may seem like either a) A dream or b) Dullsville. To me it is a little of both.  The routine feeds the work in some way I don’t entirely understand. It also enforces boringness—you want to go out and party, sure, but then how do you get up at 4:45?  And oddly, the whole thing is surprisingly tense. Because you are doing all this stuff, controlling what you can control, going through your rituals like a batter at the plate, but at the same time at the heart of the whole thing is crazy voodoo magic: the fucking words have to come from somewhere!  Where do they really come from? Who knows? But if you are smart you don’t spend too much time thinking about it and just keep writing.


4. It’s tiring. It doesn’t look tiring when I write the schedule down—it looks kind of gentle and nice–but it is. More so as I get older. Basically, if you are really into it, it renders you incapable of doing much else. I can still be civil to my family, still have some fun even, but the truth is that I’m kind of a shell, useless. I stop showering or doing laundry. Okay, I never do much laundry anyway. But I do even less.


5. You find yourself looking ahead at the calendar, thinking/dreaming about when you will be done. That–being done–seems like heaven. Which is kind of weird and speaks to the insatiable workings of the human mind. After all, aren’t you kind of in heaven when you are absorbed in a first draft? No, your mind wants to be done. And then, when you are done, it wants back in.


6. Another strange thing is that the more I do this the more I can predict, almost to the day, when I will be done. Tonight we are going to the Blockade Runner, a hotel on the beach out on Wrightsville, for a two day vacation of hot-tubbing and beach-going. That’s my reward before the next drafts start. I made these reservations a month ago, figuring this was the day I’d finish. I was off, true, finishing not on Wednesday morning but on Tuesday. But you get the point. I have no idea what this is about. Experience maybe.  


When I get back I have a series of drafts ahead, including:

1. A Tighten the Bolts on-computer draft. That is a fast, language-centered reading of the whole ms. on the computer.

2. A Print-Out-and-Read Big-Picture draft. Thinking of the book as a whole and how the chapters relate.

3. An Individual Chapter Print Out/Read Through draft.

4. A Final Read Through draft.


All these are important, all necessary. But momentum, and some peace of mind, have already been won through this simple fact: the scariest draft is done. From here on I will be working with something in hand. Not creating out of nothing.

  1. Debora writes:

    Good one Dave. Interesting to see how people work.

  2. Suzanne Stryk writes:

    Interesting Bad Advice.

    I wonder if writers feel they lose something fresh and spontaneous when first draft becomes 2nd draft becomes 3rd, and so on. In visual art, I love when a piece begins, the first draft so to speak, and then I often proceed to ruin it, and then must wrestle it back to some semblance of finished-ness with some freshness. Do you ever go back to your first draft, or your recording, and say, “Hey, it sounded better that way” ?

    Another question: is the bath an incubator of ideas, and if so, do you keep a pencil and notebook handy?

  3. Tommy writes:

    Congrats on blowing through your first draft! Enjoy your much deserved reprieve at the coast! Then, back to the salt mine!

  4. daisy barringer writes:

    Every time you write something about your schedule, I feel like I’ll never be a successful writer because I like to sleep late.

    Can’t wait to read the book!

    • dave writes:

      Lots of writers sleep late! Nina would if the rest of us weren’t so loud. Wish I could once stay up and watch a full sporting event.

  5. Rahul Dave writes:

    Thanks for the birds eye into the process Dave!

  6. Ellen Cooney writes:

    Seizing the chance here to say something about drafts–also, “scary,” but in a different sense. I can’t stop thinking about this, so: not long ago I found myself in a conversation with 2 teachers of comp at a community college. They wanted to know “how a published writer” (that would be me) “feels about drafts.” They wanted good words from me to take to their students to prove drafts are necessary. Sure! I was about to get into it when they explained to me they wanted to talk about the draft that comes after the second one. The second one? Yeah. Because the second draft is where you put in the punctuation, like the commas and stuff, and apostrophes, and, you know, the grammar. Me: Well, wait a minute here; why can’t commas and apostrophes etc. be in the very first draft? Looks come on their faces of, oh, God, this writer is actually kind of dumb. And one said, “No one puts in punctuation and grammar stuff on a first draft. It can’t be done because you’re too busy expressing your thoughts.” Me: Do you tell your students this? Them: Yeah, course. Sad to say, after I did my best to say you sure can express and punctuate at the same time, it was, “Wow, you’re really unusual.” And they wandered away and that was that and I’m still depressed about it.

    • Dave writes:

      I think there is something very important hidden here. I think a lot of beginning writers think this way–and are this way. I was too and I used to call my first drafts “framing drafts” after framing a house–just slamming it together.

      Now how it comes out–puncuation included–is the whole thrill. The thrill of shaping sentences as they come….the shape is everything. No, not everything. But a lot.

  7. Mick Guinn writes:


    This is good advice. Thanks! Just like Kerry above writes, it’s helpful to hear how other writers do it. Our writers group last night was missing half of it’s participants, so we had more time to talk about our individual processes. It was equally helpful. It’s hard to meet a writer who hasn’t read Bird By Bird, but it’s still assistive to hear writers speak specifically about what works for them, how long they write, when they write, and how they deal with distraction without getting mired in self-recrimination.

    I too, LOVE the magic part. Where DO the words come from? How do the ideas, pictures, and dialogue find their way to the page? I have no idea what I’m going to write on many occasions and it’s magic to watch what manifests. It’s terrifying like a roller coaster. You know it’s going to be over at some point, the odds of you being thrown from the car are acceptably low, but while you’re on it, it can still feel like you’re going to lose your lunch.

    I’m not sure I would want it any other way.

    Thanks, Dave.



  8. marty castleberg writes:

    How can something look so dull on the surface yet be sooooooooo intense? Thanks for the post guys, now back to the tea and morning chocolate—I save the banana for my oatmeal. Writers need fiber.

  9. Toni writes:

    Thanks for listing your stages of drafting. I like to get a lot of perspectives on revision of longer stuff.

  10. Kerry Headley writes:

    This is one of my favorite bad advice writing posts. I like hearing how other writers do it, especially since I am revising. It makes it even more clear how my process works–never in the morning. I don’t even want to know I am alive before 8:30 a.m. But I’m happy to write when most of my writer friends are taking their afternoon naps.

  11. thierry kauffmann writes:

    Thank you for sharing your uncivil routine for book creation, and for showing us that it works! Now when I’m up at 5 AM. I’ll be thinking “Dave is writing,” and I will take my pen and write some more.

    • dave writes:

      You are very welcome! Don’t forget the afternoon bath. I think that is the key.

    • Debora writes:

      I have Paris time on my Iphone. When my canine crew drags me out of bed I check the hour to wonder if Frenchie is playing chess.