November 8, 2011

Can You “Fast Draft”?

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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Comments — What do you think?

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Elizabeth Arroyo

I find fast drafting easier when you know your main arcs. It allows you to get there and then fill in the blanks later. I’ve done it, but it took longer than two weeks. =)

Gabriella Hewitt

Fascinating post. I’ve never heard of this method. I get the analogy but I don’t think I could do it. I like to get things right as I go. I find that getting a scene the way I want enables me to move forward. I’m not sure I’d like to have the framework and then have to go back after I finished to fill it in. But I’m also a big believer in people finding the method that works best for them. We’re all under pressure to get books out and the more we can get out the better. If this system works, go for it. ( :


Great post. I remember reading Roxanne St. Claire’s post about decorating the unfinished skyscraper a few weeks ago.

I believe in this post. I’ve never read the “Fast Draft” articles, but this more or less fits what I’ve been doing. Yes, I can probably write 1000 words an hour, or maybe 500, but only after I have either written down an outline, or at least made it clear in my mind. “Who is going where? With whom? What happens? What happens next?”

I am now reading something that was obviously written without any clear story arc, and the prose meanders all over the place. I have no idea where the author is going, and I don’t really care. I probably will not get to the end.

So, Jami, thanks for supporting my model of writing!

Jill Kemerer

I use my own fast draft method. I’m an extreme plotter. Once I know the main story points and how I will connect them, I write fast. However, I do review and do light edits as I go. I still end up revising for weeks, but overall, my method keeps me sane and allows me to be prolific. I’m keeping it!

Shellie Sakai

Hey Jami!

I took Candace’s class and loved it. I have been a follower of her’s for quite sometime. I love fast draft. It works great for me, especially the no edit as you go. I fast draft with pencil and paper then transcribe/edit onto the computer.

When I do it with pencil and paper there are no annoying red or green lines underscoring an error. When I am writing on the computer I see these errors and immediately stop to fix them, which stops my writing.

Great post and I think everyone should try fast draft at least once in their writing career. 🙂

Susan Sipal

What a great analysis, Jami. And thanks for providing the links to Candace’s workshop. I’d not heard of it.

I think with all things, this is a process that will work for some writers with some stories. I definitely get and agree with the idea of separating out the creative and editing minds and letting each do their jobs.

My concern for myself with the process is very similar to what you stated here: “Once I write something, I have a hard time seeing how it could be changed until someone points it out.”

I’m EXACTLY like this. Changing major ideas I’ve written is much more difficult than changing them when they are still in idea stage. Therefore, I’d have to have thought out my story very well before I could commit to just writing a draft as fast as I can, because I know it will be harder for me to change it once written.

Raelyn Barclay

I love the skyscraper analogy!

Hmm…once again I think I fall somewhere in between. I don’t edit during the first draft aside from little tweaks I make re-reading what I wrote the day before, even then I only allow myself to add, I can’t cut until the revision stage. I’ve tried a couple different “fast draft” methods but none has really resonated with me. I’ll definitely check out Candace Havens.

Great post Jami!

Brooke Johnson

I fast-drafted my first novel. Even going to school, I finished it in six months roughly. I also pantsed it the entire way through. When it came to revisions. I spent nine months revising, and I only got about halfway through the third draft before giving up. I just couldn’t figure out how to take the crap I had written and turn it into something better. So for my second novel, the one that’s releasing next month, I spent two weeks plotting the story, and roughly four months writing the first draft, editing as I went. When I started the novel, I wanted to do the opposite of what I did with the first. Because I really wanted this book to work, and I didn’t want to spend more time revising than it took to write the book. So I deliberately stifled my wordcount. I didn’t worry about how many words I got down each day. I just made sure that the words I did write, were as good as I could make them, without of course, becoming a perfectionist. On a good day, I got 500 words an hour. On a bad day, 100 words an hour. I spent four months writing that draft. And I maybe got 1500 words a day in the beginning. I ended writing about 3500 words a day, but I also had to do the most editing on those final chapters. Four months writing, and only a few weeks of revision (taking out all…  — Read More »

Laura Pauling

Over the past few years, I’ve definitely written faster, or more per day. Some scenes go faster than others. But I don’t feel the pressure to have to finish my first draft in 3 weeks. I finish mine in under 3 months, which is fine for me.

And I love first drafts! I love writing them, the creativity, the flow, the not editing. Why would I want to push through it in a couple weeks? No thanks.

I can see if people really struggle with editing all the time, which I don’t. I just make notes. That this process would be a benefit. It might be fun to try though. Every time I try pantsing for fun though, I end up scrapping the entire story and idea.

Kathrine Roid

I use this method! Outlining is for freethinking and creativity. The first draft is for giving me something to use magic on. Editing is for magic. Naturally, with this method, I am a fan of NaNoWriMo and the many, many other WriMos out there for different months.

My first drafts are very bare and ugly. Just as how my outline is a bunch of scribbles phrases that basically remind me of what is supposed to happen, the first draft is a bunch of scribbled phrases that just get everything and everyone into place, a reminder of what the final product should look like. There is little if any description, the dialogue will probably need to be completely rewritten, and character development moves at funny paces. When I edit, I first make sure this is the final form I want for my novel: there are no plots holes, no unnecessary scenes, the story starts and ends at the proper places, and the remaining scenes are in proper order. Then I go through with my magic wand (a pen that can write in both normal and red ink 😉 ) scene by scene.

That first draft where I’m trying to give pretty phrases on an outline a novelish-like shape is hard and difficult. However, I find editing to be fun. It was only natural for me to find a method that squashed the amount of time spent on what I didn’t like: the first draft.

Roxanne St. Claire

Hi Jami – Thanks for linking to my blog and for giving my awesome husband the credit he deserves for a world-class analogy. This is a GREAT discussion of fast drafting! I didn’t used to be a pantzer, honest! I actually gave workshops on how to create a Plot Board! But over the course of almost thirty books, my approach has changed and now I work from a “story plan” – and call myself a Plantzer. 🙂 The story plan starts as one page of a simple arc, major scenes, turning points, black moment (if I think I know it) and climax. It grows to many, many pages by the end of the book. As an update, I finished that fast draft (had to take a few weeks off to do a revision and some galleys for other books) at about 60K words, so it’s easily 30K short of a full book. Then I went through scene by scene and wrote a document that outlines what’s missing, what the scene needs, where else it might go — in essence, I wrote myself a ten page revision letter. I also wrote a lot about characters and their backstory — it really took the whole 60K fast draft to figure that all out. Next week, I’m starting the “revisions” and hope to turn in a book by December 15. So far, I’ve loved this new method. Now, this is the second book in a series, so all the “heavy lifting” of world-building…  — Read More »

Kerry Meacham

Thanks for the shout out. I had a great time with our sprint on Sunday. I can’t remember if we discussed it or not, but I took an online NaNo Road Map class in October. It basically helped me come up with the log-line, then characters, then plot/pinch points (see Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering), and finally a beat sheet or scene list (depending on how detailed you want to get). So I have my entire story plotted with what each scene is supposed to do (not WWBC story BTW). This was finished prior to starting NaNo, and I can say without hesitation that it has helped me get way ahead of the 1,667 words/day curve (currently 22,459 as of this morning, or about 2,800 words/day for me). I’ve tried NaNo twice pantsing, and both times I quit because I kept running down rabbit trails where I would become lost. The one time I hit 50,000 was a book I had outlined to a certain degree, but it still wasn’t structured properly. I wanted to give myself the best chance of a sound structure on this one, so I did the class and I’m glad I did. One other thing I hadn’t noticed, until you pointed it out, was the word count disparity in my two one hour sprints. I went back and looked at what I wrote, and it occured to me that the 2,061 words in an hour is the First Plot Point scene, and the 1,369 was the…  — Read More »

Nancy S. Thompson

This was exactly how I wrote my first novel, The Mistaken. At the time, I knew nothing about writing or publishing so I didn’t realize it was an unusual way to bang out a first draft. But now that I’ve done it that way, I think it’ll be the only way that works for me.

Laurie London

I remember reading Roxanne’s post when it came out and it made me wonder if I could do it too. Like you, Jami, I’m a fairly clean writer, but the process is slow. I’ve got it in my head that if I don’t understand things at the beginning, how will I know what is in keeping with the story and the characters down the line? Using the building analogy, if the foundation is weak, then the whole thing could topple.

Then again, my last book I turned in had a fairly tight turnaround and I had to really push myself. I discovered secrets about my characters and had some really interesting story twists that were fun to explore. Sometimes our subconscious is more powerful that we give it credit for and fast drafting helps get it down on paper. I can agonize ad nauseam over the littlest things when most of the time, I just need to keep pushing forward.

Thanks for a great post!

Gene Lempp

You mentioned me! I am printing this post out and keeping it forever. *grins* Seriously, thanks for the mention, sprints were a lot of fun.

Since Kerry gave up his secrets I’ll give up a couple of mine. While I didn’t take the same NaNo prep course as Kerry, I did use Brook’s Story Engineering and had a formed plot, logline, characters, main plot points and scene listing by the start of NaNo. The outline is a definite benefit.

The main benefit I found for the sprint was in shutting off my internal editor and just letting the muse go with it. I’m horrible about editing, wanting to fact check myself, wandering off for a minute or ten, etc., while I write. The sprints keep me locked in my seat, moving along without the time to edit (because the time pressure is on word count).

While I didn’t join in yesterday, I wrote in two hour long shifts and put in another 2309 words. The system seems to work for me. However, like you, I’m not sure how much that will save me on the revision end of things. Personally, I enjoy designing and revising far more then I enjoy the actual writing (I was a total pantser until a year ago so this is really no surprise).

I’m going to take a look at the “Fast Draft” method and see if it offers ways to refine what it already working for me. Thanks for pointing it out.

Peace Jami 😀

Candace Havens

There’s more to Fast Draft than just getting the guts of the story on the page. What you find is when you eat, sleep and drink your story like this, your subconscious, which is a much better writer than you are, takes over. There will be more continuity and usually, though you’ll need to fluff during revisions, your characters and story will be more cohesive.

And it doesn’t matter how you’ve written before, or what you “think” your limitations are, everyone can do Fast Draft. 🙂

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

This is one of those posts I’ll have to bookmark and refer back to on a regular basis, loved it!
I have never fast drafted, have never done any writing challenges for word count, never participated in anything remotely like either of those…but hell, it’s definitely time. I need something like this. I need to push myself, to stop trying to be perfect which is ridiculous because nobody is perfect) I need to just write.
I would love to participate in that Twitter #1k1hr thing. Do I just do a search for the hashtag to learn more, or…
I haven’t written anything in a few days now and I really need to get going. Like you said, I can’t edit a blank page so if writing as much as I can in a specific amount of times gets words on the page, then I’m in.
What a fantastic post Jami!
Thank you so much and have a great evening,

Candace Havens

Hey Tamara,
I do #1k1hr all the time. I’m out of town this week but will be hitting it hard next week. You can follow me at @candacehavens

🙂 -Candy

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

Ah nano… I’m about 2 days behind, which is ok by me as I’d spent the first 4 days partying in New Orleans, hence my lack of focus. Overall, I’m bringing in about 1000 words an hour.

I did some prep work…specifically I wrote out a synopsis for about the first third, which is basically my outline. After that, I’ll probably fall into pantser territory, but I think I’ll have enough story and momentum to push me through to my 50k goal.

I also did some work ahead of time fleshing out the primary characters, which is helping bunches.

I do find that I spew the best when I don’t worry too much about clean, interesting dialog, and I’m leaving some details out of my character and setting development. Basically, I’m focusing on plot, with a framework for the other stuff. And I’m definitely not focusing on word choice, sentence structure and the like.

We’ll se if my plot-first methodology works. I’m assuming my characters will show themselves organically as I write.

Jen J. Danna

As much as I love the idea of fast drafting, I know it’s not for me. Part of it is likely because I write with a partner, so we go a chapter at a time, edit and then move on. I like the idea of word sprints, but I’ll always go back to tweak a chapter before moving forward. I think I’d find it distracting to know there’s a bunch of flotsam behind me that needs fixing. So, our way works for us, but for those that can fast draft, more power to you!

Brooklyn Ann

For me, it depends on the project. Fast drafting worked great for my historical paranormal and my contemporary rock star romances. But with my urban fantasy series it failed. I think it’s the subplots that got me there. Effective subplots really need a writer to take more time and ponder how to get them working their best.


I’ve written two novels this way, but I don’t get close to 50K words in the first draft, more like half that. But by the time I fill in the gaps and such it ends around 60K words. I like the skyscraper analogy!

Teresa Robeson

I am incredibly impressed that your blog posts are mostly first drafts. I think my 10th edits don’t read as well as your first draft!

I can barely do NaNoWriMo, I doubt I’ll ever be able to do Fast Draft. Interesting idea though. 🙂

Ava Jae

I’ve never tried fast drafting, but it sounds like something I may want to try out in the future. I know I definitely write more when I hold myself accountable to a word count–in fact, having a daily word quota not only keeps me writing, but keeps me from wondering whether I wrote enough for that day.

sharon k owen

Thank you for the reminder of fast drafting. I’ve tried the technique before with limited success. But you’ve talked me into trying again.

Stacy Green

I think Fast Drafting could work for me. I tend to write the best when I have the scene figured out and then make myself sit down at write it. That’s always my challenge. But like you, I like to edit as I go. I always read the last scene that I wrote before starting a new one. I think in the end, it takes about the same about of time to come up with a finished, publishable product. There are a just many different ways to get there:)

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