Can You “Fast Draft”?

by Jami Gold on November 8, 2011

in Writing Stuff

Draft stamp

Several writers I know have recently tried the “Fast Draft” method.  What is the Fast Draft method?  Fast drafting entails getting the framework of our stories down as fast as possible—without worrying what that draft looks like.

Author Candace Havens says it’s possible to complete a first draft in two weeks.  *mind boggles*  Two weeks is even faster than the 50K-words-in-a-month schedule of National Novel Writing Month.

We’ve heard the advice to “write sh*tty first drafts,” and this method embraces that advice to the fullest.  After all, we can’t edit a blank page.

Author Roxanne St. Claire wrote a great blog post a few weeks ago about why she finally made the effort to learn how to Fast Draft.  Her husband made the brilliant analogy that editing as we go or worrying about the details of word choice and whatnot in a first draft is like decorating a skyscraper before construction is done.

“What you need to do … [i]s frame the building with rebar.  Lay down the floors.  Leave holes for stairwells and elevators and windows.  Build the exoskeleton in 60,000 words, then go back and start filling in each floor.  And after the floors are done, then you can paint, hang curtains, and put your precious plants around.”

After her husband’s speech, Roxanne attended Candace’s Fast Draft workshop and made herself try the method.  Three weeks and 53K words later, she’s “discovered the key turning points, the emotional arc, the outcome of the subplots, and the “beats” of the story.”

She admits that her story building has a lot of holes.  She still needs to:

“…build the missing stairwells (transition scenes!) and carpet every room (five senses!) and hang a few pictures (emotional introspection!) and, of course, arrange my precious plants (power verbs!).”

But she has a starting point, and more importantly, she isn’t spending weeks editing/revising/rewriting thousands of words to get them perfect—only to rip them out when she discovers the plot needs serious adjustment.

Sounds Great!  How Do I Do It?

Candace offers her workshops on her website, as well as at writing conferences and chapter meetings.  An extremely generous author, she shared tips from her workshop at the 2011 RWA National Conference.

This handout includes the “rules” for fast drafting, which include:

  • No editing (don’t even read previous paragraphs to remember where you left off)
  • No distractions
  • No excuses

Whether we Fast Draft or not, those rules sound pretty good for making us focus on what it takes to finish a draft.

Will Fast Drafting Work for Everyone?

That’s a good question.  I’ve heard that both plotters and pantsers can succeed with fast drafting.  But I’d guess the types of edits they have to make after the fact would be different.

A pantser might discover that the plot of their book is completely different from when they first started.  And with the “no editing” rule, there’s a good chance the beginning would need to be rewritten from scratch.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the editing-as-you-go approach could result in several “beginnings from scratch” while discovering where the plot wants to go.

A plotter might think they have everything organized just so before starting, but the requirement of turning off the internal editor might make the story veer into uncharted territory.  Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as when stories go where they want, the result can be a more naturally flowing plot.

In other words, the Fast Draft method can play to the strengths of both plotters and pantsers, while also removing some of the weaknesses.  That’s an intriguing thought.

My Experiment with Fast Drafting

I have never been a fast drafter.  While I’m able to settle on a word that I know isn’t perfect and move on, I’m a perfectionist in general.

Some of that reluctance to embrace imperfection is because I know the things I tend to miss in editing, and I’d rather get it right the first time.  Once I write something, I have a hard time seeing how it could be changed until someone points it out.

Luckily, my first drafts are fairly clean.  (I’ve mentioned before that my blog posts are near first draft quality.)  However, my first drafts definitely aren’t fast.  I probably average about 400-500 words an hour for that “clean” draft.  And even then, they still need some editing.

So when some of my friends, Kerry Meacham and Gene Lempp, organized two writing sprints on Twitter this past weekend, I decided to give it a try.  Similar to the #1k1hr hashtag on Twitter, writing sprints are about spending a set amount of time typing as fast as you can.

We set each of our writing sprints for an hour, and at the tweet of “Go!”, we all went “dark” (no Twitter, email, etc.).  An hour later we reported our word count.  I wrote 900 words for the first one and 1K words for the second.

I was still the slowest of the bunch even though I’m a good typist.  (Gene wrote 1186 and 1177, and Kerry wrote 2061 and 1369.  @albrtwhite joined us for 1200, and @laurengarafalo came in late and still managed 1044.)  But my 900-1000 words were double my usual, so I’ll take it.  *smile*

Only time will tell if that “messier” section of my draft ends up helping or just taking more time to edit.  Kerry admits his drafts are near stream-of-consciousness.  So I have to wonder if a higher word count is always a good thing.

A part of me still wants to protest.  What if the need for more editing takes up more time than it would have taken to write a cleaner draft to begin with?  Haven’t we all heard the saying, “If you’re going to take the time to do something, do it right”?

Obviously, I’m still conflicted about this.  I love the idea of fast drafting, and I definitely think we should limit the amount of editing we do while in the drafting stage.  But I’ll be looking at my word sprint scene very closely when it comes to editing time to see if the method actually saved time or just shifted it from one phase to another.

For me, I think the real benefit of word sprints, #1k1hr, or fast drafting comes from the sense of commitment during writing time.  It means not letting ourselves get distracted, it means not using any excuses like “my muse isn’t speaking to me,” and it means that we have others holding us accountable for our results.  For that reason alone, I’ll try word sprints again.

Have you tried fast drafting?  How did it work for you?  How does your editing change when you fast draft?  Do you think fast drafting saves you time and/or effort?  Do you write more when you feel accountable for your word count?

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