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  • Writer's pictureSiân Smith

4 things you need to know about your first draft

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been sharing my thoughts and advice on how to switch your mindset towards your first draft, so that you can expect less and achieve more.


Here, I collate my various analogies and reminders so you have somewhere you can turn to the next time you think ‘This book is rubbish!’. Read on to find out why your book is like a pancake; the difference between a first and final draft; what the first draft is for; why I don’t want to read your first draft, and more.


1.      What is a first draft?

The first draft of any book is when you finally type the words ‘The End’. You might have more you want to add or you may have over half of it to cut out. The point is, you’ve got from the beginning to the end.

At this stage, it is a rough sketch of what you feel the final book will look like. You’ve managed to write down the crucial parts of your narrative. Hopefully at some point along the way you created a content outline to keep you more or less on track with the development and flow of the book.

However, the most important part of the first draft stage is just the writing. As daft as it sounds, the first draft really is all about writing. Write without any expectation or pressure. Yes, think about the why behind your book, but don’t get bogged down in the detail of it all. Just write until you get to the end.

The difference between a first and final draft is down the amount of time spent on it. The final draft is the one that you send to a line editor or copyeditor. The final draft is where only minor tweaks are needed to improve the readability, flow, and comprehension of your book.  

2.      No one else will read the first draft

Only YOU need to read this first draft. By all means, tell people you’ve written this first draft because that is a huge accomplishment! But don’t worry yet about other people reading it (except perhaps a writing coach or mentor, if you’re part of a writing workshop).

Always remember this first draft will be the worst version of your book!

No one else will ever know that the second paragraph of chapter 2 once said ‘WRITE SOMETHING HERE ABOUT MY FEELINGS ABOUT THIS’; that chapter 5 was scrapped because you didn’t have much to say in the end; how chapter 7 was split into two chapters because you had so much to say.


At some point, you will need to get used to the idea that other people are going to read this book, but not yet. Not the first draft.


3.      Why your book is like a pancake

Think of the first draft of your book like the first pancake.

The first pancake in a batch is generally the worst one of the lot, but each one that follows gets better and better.


All that hard work that you put into that first pancake doesn’t go to waste, either. The ingredients you selected and combined are still needed for the rest of the batch – it’s just that not everything was quite ready when you cooked the first pancake.


There are myriad reasons why the subsequent pancakes are usually better than the first one: the batter has had time to breathe; the pan has reached the optimum temperature; you’re better at gauging how much batter to add to the pan. It could be that you need to whisk the batter more or you need someone else to kindly let you know what needs tweaking (when my husband’s mix curdled, I knew it was because there was too much fat in the mixture).


Now, I’m sure you don’t need me to explain how this metaphor relates to the first draft of your book.

But if you expect the first draft to be the worst version of the final revision of your manuscript, then you’re more likely to be aware that it can and will get better from that point! Without the hard work that goes into that first draft, however, there’s nothing to work on.


A stack of thick pancakes with berries on the top
Treat the first draft of your book like the first pancake. Photo credit: Siân Smith


4.      Why I don’t want to read your first draft


As mentioned above, the only people who might read your first draft are writing coaches and / or developmental editors. But even in those scenarios, it’s actually quite unlikely they will read the true first draft.

Once you’ve typed ‘the end’, remember to breathe and create space. Give yourself at least two weeks to put the draft away and vow not to look at it again during that time. Of course, you’ll be able to think of little else by this point, so by all means let yourself brainstorm and jot things down as they come to you, but DO NOT LOOK AT THE FIRST DRAFT during this time.

Once at least two weeks have passed, revisit your first draft with those thoughts and notes to hand and see which thoughts are relevant and which are no longer applicable or need tackling just yet. Trust your intuition.

You can think about sending this second draft (see how the first draft has already been replaced?) to your writing coach or book editor only after this thinking time!

Even with my manuscript appraisals, I don’t want to use your first draft. Revising your manuscript is when you can fill in blanks to do with timelines; check your references and facts; do some market research with existing books in your genre. The more background work you do at this stage, the more your book editor can focus on honing your narrative craft and refining the argument and purpose of the book.

What next?

Once you’ve moved past that first draft stage, you’ve reread and self-edited a few times, then it’s time to let your editor know you’re ready to start the editing process. I’ve heard many writing coaches tell their mentees that editing is where the magic happens with a book.

Of course, the idea for the book and the work that goes into writing it comes from you, but working with an editorial professional will make a surprising difference to your book. Particularly in the early stages of editing (developmental editing or with a manuscript appraisal) it’s a truly collaborative process. Ideas get shared between writer and editor: some will be rejected, some will be applied without any hesitation. I always explain the positive difference such changes will make to a writer’s book, but I also remind them it is THEIR book. Writers (especially in the self-publishing world) have the final say when it comes to their book.

This is why I generally advise writers to allow at least 6 weeks between finishing their first draft and sending their manuscript to their book editor. Many freelance editors are booked up 3 to 6 months in advance. But don’t be disheartened by this timeframe: use the time to work on your current draft, knowing you have an achievable deadline to work towards.

If your preferred editor is nearer the 6-month availability timeframe, perhaps you might even start outlining a second book (putting into practice all you’ve learned from writing the first book!).

For now, just keep going with that first draft. Without it, you’ll never have a book to publish!

A Caucasian woman with blonde, wavy hair is wearing gold, round glasses, smiling at the camera with both thumbs up.
Keep going with that first draft! Photo credit: Siân Smith


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