How to Get More Out of Your Rough Drafts

The most important thing I have learned about writing is the utility of a good rough draft. The rougher the better.

In high school I would do all of my writing assignments at the last minute. My first draft was often my final draft. And it showed. I get could get an “A” and squeak by, but I never wrote anything worth reading.

The habit continued once I started blogging and writing on a regular basis. I would write an article. Briefly proofread it. And then hit the publish button.

And I never wrote anything worth reading.

After some time I noticed that if went back and reread some of my own articles, I would develop an idea that would make them better. Like a good joke well after the moment was over, I would be disappointed that the idea wasn’t thought of earlier.

Rough drafts play a critical role in everything we write. They help us organize our thoughts. They help us come up with new and better ideas. They help us write with better precision. But only if we use them well.

When Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb, the final answers to the problems were not obvious initially.  The story goes that he tried 1,000 times before getting it right. He had to discover what didn’t work before he discovered what did.

999 failures.

999 rough drafts.

We shouldn’t look at writing any differently.

But many writers expect themselves to get it right on the first try. They expect the first prototype to work without ever crashing. They expect the light bulb to turn on and fill an entire room with light and last forever. And they neglect using rough drafts to their advantage.

Here are 6 ways to get more out of your rough drafts.

1. Don’t edit while you write. Just write. Too many writers expect their words to be beautiful on the first try. How can it be? And when it isn’t, we can make the mistake of editing while we write. This editing is like a dam for your ideas and words. Give yourself the freedom to actually write a first draft. Rough is supposed to be that. Rough.

Stop worrying about getting it right. Just write and let the words flow.

2. Write the rough draft now. Writers need deadlines. Without them, few would be productive. But you can’t use your rough drafts well if you wait until the last minute. Write ahead of time. Write long before the deadline. Write even when your words don’t have a designated assignment.

Get the words on paper sooner than later.

3. Read your rough draft out loud. Some things we write get stuck in our heads. No matter how many times you read it, the words make sense. But you need to look at it from a different perspective. The easiest way to do this is to read it out loud. Does it still make sense?

Reading out loud uses different parts of your brain and give you a different perspective.

4. Trim. Trim. Trim. The last step in everything you write should be to cut out any unnecessary words or phrases. They are there. A good place to begin is to look for words such as “just” and “that.” We all use them way to much. Once you get in the habit of simplifying what you say, you will find phrases that you commonly overuse as well.

When you simply your writing, you make the words you leave on the page powerful.

5. Have someone else edit it. My go-to proofreader is my wife. She is ruthless and she doesn’t care about my feelings getting hurt. These are the two important traits of a good editor. Find someone who is honest and ask them to help you make your writing better. This can be a spouse, a friend, or a professional editor.

They will see things in your writing that you never could. And it will be better for it.

6. Publish. Some writers never let their drafts see the light of day. Like an overprotective parent, they are guarding their work until they decide it is perfect and mature. The goal of your drafts must be to publish them. Revise. Edit. Make them better. But when the times comes, they need to get a job of their own and move out of the house.

Rough drafts never matter until the day we publish.

QUESTION: How do you get more out of your rough drafts?

* Image credit: Paul Snyder (Creation Swap)

  • I treat a rough draft like I do journaling. I write very “stream of conscious,” just getting the words on the paper. I don’t worry about how stupid it sounds (because it always does). I focus first on what I’m really trying to say. I usually don’t figure that out until I start writing.

    You’re so right about trimming. I’ve noticed just how much I use words like “just.”(I laughed when I re-read that sentence and found the word just in it!) Another word I notice a lot is “so.” Since I write my rough draft “stream of conscious,” I notice that the word “so” begins many of my sentences. That’s fine for the rough draft, but soon they just gotta go.

    • And that is exactly the way to get rid of those pesky words. To not worry at first and then to find them and cut them out.

      Does writing music work the same way?

      • Sometimes, yes. Especially if I come up with lyrics first and then a melody. Sometimes I have to trim the words to fit with the melody.

  • Steve Thomas

    What great ideas…particularly #1. That just writing thing is tough. What’s most difficult for you?

    • I’m definitely an editor. I want to rewrite constantly. The point of the first draft isn’t beauty, but ideas. It isn’t about sentence structure, it is about exploring outside of structure. The hard part is letting go.

  • This is a great post!

    I’ve found that if I hand-write first, let it simmer, then type, the post looks completely different. It’s the simmering and nearly starting over that’s vital.

    • I hand-write, too. I’m far more creative when I’m away from my computer.

      • I used to do more handwriting but I think I’ve strained/sprained/pulled/messed up my elbow so I’ve been typing predominantly and it’s totally different. I’m more creative by hand too.

        • My best rough drafts are always handwritten. It is easier to edit on the computer but after that I print it out and hand edit it again. I think there is something about reading it on paper, rather than a screen, that helps me in this area.

          • I totally agree. I’d rather edit on paper than on a screen any day.

      • I haven’t tried hand-writing at all. I have a friend who is a poet and he swears by it. Both for the creativity and the convenience. I need to give it a go.

  • Great ideas here, Jeremy. For me, writing a rough draft is also about environment. I have to find the right time of day, eliminate distractions and noise, maybe read something else to get my mind rolling, and then dive in, head first. Of course, if I’m too particular about this, I never get to the actual writing part. 🙂 But usually if I put a little time into my environment, my rough draft is birthed without as much effort.

    • I often find reading or listening to something first very helpful as well.

    • Michele, I’m with you on this. I need to find the appropriate environment in order to put together a good rough draft. Without it, I just can’t concentrate at all.

  • I am actually trying to get better at my ‘first draft’. I have learned to free-write, pouring out without editing. But since i don’t like/enjoy editing an article over and over, (english happens to be 3rd language), i am working on coherence and flow in the first draft. i guess it’s about keeping balance? Not get too caught up with a ‘perfect’ but at the same time be keen on focus and flow.

    • To some degree, you can really let the focus and flow get completely out of hand. I think this is when you can discover some of your best ideas. When you let go of all of the rules.

  • I am horrible at editing as I go along. Must stop doing this. Thanks for the challenge to write and then spend more time on it after I write.

  • One of my favourite things in life is taking one of my clunky, awkward sentences and saying it better in half as many words that are twice as simple.

    The need for this was tellingly brought home to me by my daughter one day when I asked her to read a piece about a grossly obese, bed-bound, cockney London woman who was going to have to move house. ‘She wouldn’t speak like that, Mum,’ she said. ‘The words she uses are too clever.