sign in red text says "Sorry I'm a Mess" First Book Finish Rules of the Draft
And that's how it should be.


First Book Finish Rules of The Draft: How to Ensure You'll Get to “The End.”

This week I want to talk about writing to finish a completed rough draft of your manuscript. This is one of the key results I help writers achieve in my First Book Finish program.

The First Book Book Finish program will open for registration on Tuesday, July 6th and the program will start the following week on Monday, July 12th. To get on the Waiting List and receive an exclusive discount and a special bonus not available anywhere else, you can click through here to enter your email address.

Today, I’ll be sharing some of the material from one of the lessons in Module 1 of the First Book Finish program.

Module 1 of First Book Finish is all about Finding Focus — getting ourselves organized and clear about the work still to be done and how to best approach it.

In this lesson we explore exactly how rough or complete a draft needs to be. We look at the five essential elements of a first draft so that you can answer that question in your head: okay, but how rough IS “rough,” exactly.  And I share a set of First Book Finish Rules of the Draft that all my #Finishers follow as we do our work  over our 12 weeks together. 

Defining the Draft

We often throw words around without being clear, so I think it's useful to look at definitions — and draft is definitely one of the words that gets tossed around a lot in the writing community without real clarity about what it involves..

Here’s a definition for you here from the Cambridge English Dictionary online:

“a piece of text, a formal suggestion, or a drawing in its original state, often containing the main ideas and intentions but not the developed form.”

Aha! Here we have absolute clarity that our “rough” draft must contain a piece of text in its original state, and that it will contain the main ideas and intentions, but NOT the developed form.

The first completed draft of your book just has to contain the main ideas. (Write that bit down on a Post-It Note and place it somewhere you’ll be sure to see it during your writing sessions!)

So let's think about this a little and take it a bit further…. We want a rough draft, but we don't want too rough a draft. 

Let's use a metaphor here:. if your first full draft were a house, it would be the full frame and the drywall, but nothing inside has yet been painted, and there are no curtains on the windows. 

And also later on, you might decide you're going to move the toilet. (Hey, it’s your house/book!)

If you're at all familiar with Anne Lamott and her book, Bird by Bird, which I highly recommend as an essential text for writers at all stages, then you know she talks about “shitty” first drafts, and that's what we're going for here. 

For the draft, we're just looking for a basic overall sense of story that we can revise and then edit later. 

If you're working on a novella, a novel, a memoir, this is all about getting that basic story down. 

If you're working on short stories or a short story collection, then you will need enough stories, typically about 10 or 12 or so, depending on the story length. 

And if you're working on a poetry collection, you're going to need about 45 to 50 poems.

What’s key to remember for the first draft though is that you won't have revised any of those individual pieces (stories, poems, essays, sections, scenes) to any great degree. And you won't have done any work to structure the manuscript beyond making sure you have enough pages. 

To a certain extent then, finishing the draft is really all about volume. How many pages is it going to take to get your book to the finish line? 

But how rough is “rough,” roughly?

Now you might be asking yourself, okay, sure. A complete first draft, but how complete? Should I write out every scene? Can I leave gaps to complete later? What if I need to stop and do some research? 

Let's talk about how complete. If you're writing a novella, a novel or a memoir, then you're going to need to have enough words or pages to fulfill the novel length requirement. As well as — and this is important — a completed narrative arc. 

This basically means that your story is going to open with a character that wants something and then stuff is going to happen that gets in the way of what they want. Then they finally get what they want or come to accept that they can't get it or something else happens at the end. Woo-hoo, congratulations! First full draft complete. 

For the first draft you want a completed narrative arc, but not necessarily the full reader experience. 

You may have a writing session where you just feel divinely inspired and you write with ease for hours. And at the end you have this beautifully written scene and it has precise action and character development, it's rich with  evocative descriptions of the setting and it's got just a perfect amount of exposition — something that's so perfectly written that you think it was dictated by angels. 

But the next day you might sit down for 30 minutes and barely be able to squeeze out 200 words. You hate every one of them and you think, why did I ever believe I could do this? 

Remember, first of all: neither of these voices may be telling you the truth. 

And the thing about being at this phase of the drafting process is that you don't know which of these scenes is actually going to make it into the final book. That's okay, don't panic. You're not supposed to know now it is Just. A. Draft.

To help you step off the carousel of thoughts going round and round in your head about the draft, I'm going to provide you with a set of very clear rules to follow to ensure that you don't get stuck. 

Now, to be clear, you might still get a little bit stuck. Some anxiety is natural and common in all writers and it doesn't always go away completely. So that's okay — we're just going to expect some of that and name it as normal. 

We're just going to follow the Rules of the Draft. And when we get a little bit stuck, we’ll come on back to the rules again and get a refresher. If you follow the First Book Finish Rules of the Draft, they will get you all the way to the end of a first full version of your book.

“The rough draft is just a big mess. I pay no attention to anything to do with style or coherence. I just need to get everything down on paper. If I’m suddenly struck with a new idea that doesn’t fit with what’s gone before, I’ll still put it in. I just make a note to go back and sort it all out later. Then I plan the whole thing out from that. I number sections and move them around. By the time I write my next draft, I have a clearer idea of where I’m going.”

— Kazuo Ishiguro

I think this is my favourite quote of any that I've read from a writer recently. I think we should listen to the Nobel prize winners, okay? 🙂

And so he's saying here that the rough draft, as he knows it, it's just a mess and he doesn't pay any attention to style or coherence — which means his draft doesn’t have to make complete sense.. He just gets it down. If a new idea doesn't fit, he makes a note to go back sorted out, and then he moves things around. And by the time he writes his next draft, he's got a clear idea of where he's going. 

This is precisely the kind of drafting process I'm recommending for you: a rough draft that’s a big mess. And I want you to let yourself have this big mess, because if you start to try to make it perfect or try to make everything fit or tie up all the loose ends, you are going to get stuck.

Perfectionism may feel good at the moment but it leaves a lot of unfinished books.

I was recently in a reading by the young adult writer, Cornelia Funke, and she has a lovely large blank journal where she writes her first drafts by hand. It's a large journal with blank pages, and she uses colored pens and markers. She draws things. She clips out images and postcards. She does illustrations, and she puts those in and among the texts that she's writing. 

If you looked at her first draft, you would say “what the holy heck is this mess?”  It is a complete mess and that's perfectly fine. 

I believe this is one of those things that I think we know as writers intellectually, but we don't embed this knowledge in our bodies, in our creative psyches enough to be able to be responsive with our writing practice. 

And so to help with this, I've created these Rules of the Draft that I just want you to follow. I want you to print them out, post them near your writing desk, put them in your journal or notebook, or put them in your laptop case and carry the Rules with you wherever you write. 

First Book Finish Rules of the Draft

Avoid anything that is not writing.

When you are sitting down to write, make sure that you're only writing and not doing anything like research or re-reading or structuring, outlining or anything like that. Just writing, that’s it.

Write regularly.

In the First Book Finish program, each writer does what we call a First Book Finish Roadmap so that they can determine what “regularly” is going to look like in your particular life. It doesn't have to mean writing every day, but it probably will mean writing multiple times each week over the next 12 weeks. We do this in order to maintain a connection to your book.

No re-reading large sections. 

At each writing session, you can re-read your last scene just to remind yourself where you left off and get back into the groove. But no rereading earlier parts of the draft, because rereading is not writing. (See Rule Number One!) You'll just get stuck, so Don't. Do. It. 

Absolutely no editing or rewriting. 

In the First Book Finish program, the need to eventually revise and edit is just a given. And we're not doing that until the draft is complete. So in the drafting stage, you're not going to have any editorial marks on the draft. You're not going to go back and redo them. You don't write a scene and then make a note in the manuscript about how it's crap, and it might need to be deleted or move this to chapter six or anything remotely like editing. The draft is an editing-free zone. 

No outline fiddling.

Some writers come into the program with a detailed outline, and if that’s the case for you, then I advise that you just leave it as it is for now, don't fiddle with it. Outline fiddling is also not writing and it'll keep you stuck. Just leave it as it is and just write the draft. You can revise your outline later once you know what the full story is. 

No changing protagonist or point-of-view (POV).

For the purposes of finishing that all-important first draft of your book, I want you to maintain your key protagonist and your point of view. You're going to be tempted to change both of these at any given point in time as you're writing through the draft: DON’T DO IT. Keep the current protagonist and your chosen point of view all the way through your first full draft — changes would constitute editing, and this is an editing free zone, right? If you've already made a change, stay with the last change you've made and just keep going from there. 

No research. 

Let's say you're writing a scene that has elements that are going to need further research. I want you to write [INSERT RESEARCH HERE]to capture that you want to look this up later and then keep writing. You can add a note to your research file at the end of your writing session about what you want to look up, but don't stop and do the research. Googling isn't writing, research isn't writing, and honestly it can just become another way to get stuck. (Again, when in doubt see Rule #1!)

Track your progress.

You’ll want to track your progress, and I recommend doing so weekly. (In the First Book Finish program, we do a personalized Roadmap so every writer knows where they are and how far they have to go to reach the FINISH line.) I am not big on writing daily, especially if your life doesn't support writing daily, but I do want you to track your progress weekly, and in First Book Finish I provide a specific way to do that. #Finishers also send me a weekly progress update and you could set that up for yourself with a writing buddy if you have one. Tracking your progress weekly helps you maintain a sense of forward momentum, and that's pretty essential when it comes to getting to the end of your draft. 


Okay, that's it. I know this was a long post, but I think it’s really important to have clarity about the basic elements of your first draft and the Rules of the Draft to help you get all the way to “The End” without getting stuck.


Now what I want you to do is to download your copy of the First Book Finish Rules of the Draft. If you go to this link you can enter your email address and I’ll send you the exact PDF I use in Module 1 of my First Book Finish program.

Print out a couple of copies: one that you can post in your writing area, and one you can carry with you absolutely everywhere when you do your regular writing sessions.

And if you're thinking “God, this stuff is great but I already know this,” or “I’m sure I can just remember these now that I’ve read the blog post,” here’s my take on that…

We’re smart cookies and we know things, of course we do, but the problem is that often we don't integrate our knowledge fully into our emotional life. And this is how we get tripped up in the first draft process. 

Grab your copy of the First Book Finish Rules of the Draft right here.


First Book Finish Rules of the Draft