On Drafting

The following was originally posted on my Not A Travel Writer sub-tumblr. As tumblr dies following its ridiculous self-destruction, I have decided to correlate all my previous posts, from several places, here. It makes sense and, crucially, means I own my content. In theory, it also means it cannot be removed by anyone else.

How I draft, an instruction-introduction.

I am aware this might have actually proven more useful at the start of November, for the NANOWRIMO crowd. Sorry!

Today, you need worry about nothing but 30 minutes. That’s it. Just 30.

Set everything up beforehand: cup of tea or a cafetière of coffee sitting beside you within easy reaching range; have a bottle of water on hand — always, always have water. Then open up whatever digital draft software you find best/have been persuaded to part with cash for, or a notebook and pen (have a spare pen on hand too — and do also consider pencil, it writes faster in some circumstances…).

All these things happen first. Then you set the timer.

30 minutes.

Did I mention it will only be for 30 minutes?

Of course, by the time you sit there (or stand – standing can be much better for your body) you already have an idea of what you wish to write, even if it is a very basic one. This is not the time for planning, that comes before and is a whole other subject (yes, one day I’ll write about my process too, if you’d like?).

30 minutes on the timer.


Now you write. Simple, yes? Well, no.

For a start, this is the hardest bit for those unaccustomed to writing drafts — they panic. Hopefully, in order to help, here is what I do — those little tricks that enable me to write swiftly and even, at times, furiously.

I type.

I use Scrivener.

I switch to distraction-free mode, with the size of the screen and the opacity of the background already dialled in.

I write.

However, I make mistakes. Perhaps I miss a leter, or aspace. Perhaps i don’t capitalise or I spell someting incorectly.

Doesn’t matter. Just LEAVE it. Do NOT pause and add the letter, space, capital, or spell it right. That’s REDRAFTING and, later, EDITING, not drafting. We’re drafting, remember?

I plough on (or plow — have no fear about your version of English at this stage either, write in the words and spelling you feel most comfortable with).

I write.

There will come a point where I will realise I’ve missed something out earlier, or I change a name, or I create a name in the first place.

Side note — names, whether people, places, things. They will change. Start with a TK, for example, tkname for the main character, or tkbestfriend for her best friend. You get the idea. At this stage you are drawing out the story, later, things-magical occur and you invariably reach a point in your draft or, sometimes, redraft, where these tks resolve themselves as your subconscious continues to work on the problem of nomenclature.

Back to the missed-out bit, or the mistake.

Don’t fix it! Don’t you dare move that cursor or the pencil!

Leave it where it is.

Do not worry.

Hit the caps lock. Add in TKIDEA, then record that thought.

Get back to the draft.

It’s a mess.


Have you ever dug clay to make pottery in the wilderness? Or have you ever needed a new spoon carved in order to eat your dinner? No, just me then, ok, sorry, personal example, but still. The clay is a mess. It has roots in it. Soil. Leaves. Small rocks. You need to know how to edit it. The branch of the tree has bark, maybe moss, the spoon wrapped within wooden fibres, hidden from view.

Same with writing.

This is a draft.

Not a polished edit, or even a redraft.

A draft.


30 minutes.

See how many words you can do. If you already have a good idea of how many — on the worst of days, not the best — use that as your minimum.

On days where words are like hen’s teeth or unicorn horns, I can write as few as 500. So that is my minimum target.

BUT it’s a target. When you are learning to fire an arrow or hit something with a sling, you DO NOT always hit the target. That’s life. That’s where practice comes in.

Keep practising.

30 minutes at a time.

Then, invariably, the timer goes off.

You stop writing NOW.

No, you STOP. You DO NOT finish the word, let alone the sentence or paragraph, no no no.

This way, you see, you are left with a loose thread to weave the next time. You won’t waste any of those precious 30 minutes, because you know exactly where you are going, what comes next.

Sometimes, and this is rare, your timer will go off just as you finish a paragraph or, even rarer, a scene or chapter.
In this case, switch your timer to either 2 or 3 minutes and keep going. Much better to have that thread the next day. If you think that’s too short a time, you are wrong. 3 minutes is 10% of your 30 — you should be able to write the next bit in that time, surely?

That’s it. You’re done. You can reach for the rapidly cooling tea or coffee you forgot.

And then you count.

Obviously, this is easier in Scrivener or another word processor than it is by hand.

Then you record this number somewhere (I currently use tumblr, backed up in Scrivener and Onedrive, but I’ve also used spreadsheets and hand-written the results too). This is important — you need to look at the factors that curtail your drafts. Hence you’ll see notes on my tumblr, where I explain how, for example, I started later in the day, or a record of illness. This gives you (me) a much better idea of what you are capable of — even under less-than-ideal circumstances.


At this point you can stop for the day, or plan another 30-minute session. If the latter, you get up now and do something else. Never, ever, ever do two 30 minute drafting sessions back-to-back without something different in between. That rarely works and when it does (yeah, I was once young, foolish, and hopeful), it is a statistical abnormality — not the norm. This is why you keep a record and notes, so you can tell future-you not to make mistakes like that.

Done. Done.

Congratulations, you’ve drafted words. Messy, beautiful words.

Somewhere in that coal is a diamond. Somewhere, amidst the mass you’ve just collected from a riverbank, is the clay you will use to make a cup. Your branch is whispering to you, showing you where to lay axe and knife. That is the next thing. For now, keep collecting the raw materials and, make no mistake, when you draft, those raw materials are simply a volume of words.

Easy yes?

Go try.

This is what works for me. It might not for you, but it is advice/description culled from a long period of practice (and reading about the processes of others, something it seems all writers and artists love to do).

Good luck — but do please remember —  in writing as in anything — you make your own luck through discipline, hard work, and practice.

30 minutes.


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