Five Tips for Respectable First Drafts


Writing is always said to be a lonely experience. You spend a lot of time locked away creating characters and worlds and when you think you are done you suddenly realise: who is going to read all of this effort I’ve put in? Then you wonder if it’s even good enough for human consumption.

When you’re first starting out, you might even trawl various online writing sites, not quite plucking up the courage to dive in and share your work. The fear of ridicule can grip you so hard it paralyses you from moving forward and gaining some objective perspective on your creations. Soon enough, it feels as if you will only ever write for yourself.

Eventually, after much psyching yourself up, you post a short story or a chapter and await nervously for the negative responses to roll in, while hoping someone will see you for the genius you are. But something far worse happens.

Nothing.

Nobody critiques your work.

What’s wrong with it? You ask yourself. Is it really that bad?

Believe me, not knowing how your work reads is far worse than some negative feedback of areas you can work on to improve. And yet, there are a few basic techniques you can employ that will make your first drafts of fiction writing perfectly respectable, even if there are still some major flaws.

Focus.

Make sure your story or chapter has a focal point, usually something that changes the character's or reader’s perception, or the direction of the story. Something to build your prose towards. All the action, dialogue, character building, setting description should be heading towards a defining moment. By doing this you will create some basic structure in your piece and even just a little is better than none.

Shaping.

Take any printed book from your shelf and look at how the pages are presented (let’s keep self-pubbed books out of this for the minute, as the quality varies so drastically). You will likely notice that each page contains different sized paragraphs, some long-ish, some short, some comprised of just a single word. The dialogue will be correctly punctuated and there may be scene breaks.

What you won't find is reams of block paragraphs taking up whole pages, inconsistent punctuation arbitrarily inserted, and characters’ speech all sitting on the same lines.

Presenting your writing in this manner is like presenting your reader with a brick wall and no apparent height limit, where the builder has stuffed the contents of the local rubbish bin in with the cement mix so that bits of bin bag, tin cans and old bed springs poke out from the mortar. Nobody wants a wall like this on their property, unless they have commissioned a New York installation artist. Writing is the same. Don’t take the attitude that your critique partner can ‘just judge the story or the characters’ and you don’t need to worry about the presentation. Installation art is not for everyone, and if it was, professionally published books would do it too.

Keep it tidy, keep it easy on the eye. Then your reader will likely afford you more time.

Sentence structure.

Vary your sentences not only in length but in what order you use your verbs, pronouns and adjectives. Too much 'he ate', 'he took', 'he walked' at the beginning of sentences becomes stale and reads like a list. Try and write your sentences without starting with pronoun + verb every time.

As for length, there has been a recent trend that short sentences make for better reading, but taking this road can make your writing seem choppy and stilted. That might work fine for some stories, like if you were writing from the perspective of a robot, but usually it denies the piece of any fluidity. Also, it risks implying that your capabilities can only convey concepts in the most basic form. Ouch! Did I just say that? Well…

On the flip-side, ridiculously long sentences with fancy words whose meanings you are not sure of will see most readers hightail out of your corral in a cloud of dust. If they haven't nodded off in their hammocks first.

Variety is your reader’s friend.

Have something significant happen.

Yes, it’s true. Often beginner writers mistake descriptive prose for story. It is not. Something must happen that has meaning. Walking around a prettily or poetically described setting meeting some lively characters along the way who do not affect any change in the direction of the story, or main characters will leave your reader feeling underwhelmed and wondering what they have spent the last hour doing.

Filter words, verbs & nouns

Removing most filter words and choosing strong verbs and nouns will sharpen your writing. Constructs such as the following: she could hear, she could see, it seemed, he appeared to be, she started to think that, he managed to. The list goes on, but consider the differences:

  • She could hear screaming coming from outside, so she rushed to see what was going on.

vs

A scream peeled in the night, and Carla ran to the window.

  • She could see the sun beginning to set.

vs

The sun had begun to set…

  • It was turning into a vast, never-ending void before his eyes

vs

The void spread out before his eyes, vast and never-ending.

  • It seemed to be becoming a fast friendship

vs

It was becoming a fast friendship

  • He appeared to be skipping down the street

vs

He skipped off down the street

  • The maid was starting to think that her new boss was a slob.

vs

The maid thought her new boss was a slob

With ‘seemed’ and ‘appeared’, the general rule of thumb is to only use them if you want to portray something as one thing but it turns out to be something else, or if you want to create ambiguity. For instance, when your narrating character isn’t sure if what they saw is correct.

Of course there is a plethora of techniques in fiction writing, but you can’t learn them all in a day. The above makes a good starting point and should make your submission more appealing to potential readers. Clear these basics out of the way and your potential critique partners can focus on the more important elements of the story, and if it’s any good.

How about you? What's your dos and don'ts before submitting work for critique?


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