05 Feb The simple trick I use to finish first drafts.
My first drafts aren’t funny.
My first drafts aren’t particularly positive.
My first drafts don’t have the right words.
My first drafts are written in passive voice, since I failed to learn how to beat that in the 7 th
grade and have simply trudged along since.
My first drafts don’t make sense.
My first drafts are only a connection of ideas loosely strung together with the thinnest of
thread. That used to drive me crazy. I’d look up from a few hours of writing and pace
around my office in anxious frustration. Then, I decided to admit something.
I write in layers.
The first layer is just a sketch. All I’ve done is taken a bunch of ideas that feel related and
put them on the same page. The transitions are flimsy, the logic is fuzzy, the cohesiveness is
none existent, but that’s OK. That’s how the first layer ALWAYS is.
I don’t even care about the words in the first draft. I’ll type NEED BETTER WORD and then
just keep going. This isn’t the good words layer. This is the concept layer. Then, once I’ve
spent enough time away from the first layer to be somewhat objective, I’ll come back and
do the second layer. Now, I care a little more about the words. I care about the transitions. I
care about the flow.
That’s better, but it’s still not very positive. Despite appearing very positive and tall online,
I can be pretty negative. I don’t know if you’ve ever picked up on this, but I can be a smidge
sarcastic. With that sarcasm comes some negativity. My initial drafts are so mopey. They’re
dark little storm clouds best suited for the liner notes of a Cure album.
So, I work in more positivity. It has to be honest, it has to be genuine. It can’t be syrup. If I
Def Leppard the whole thing and just pour sugar over it, I won’t hit the mark.
Once I get the positivity on point, I amplify the humor. In the movie industry, they often
hire comedians to “punch up” a script with more jokes. That’s what I’m doing with this
layer. I’m going back through the entire piece and making sure there are some genuine
laugh out loud moments. I look for the ridiculous and then turn it up a few notches.
The next layer I add on is to make sure it’s helpful. I like ideas that move me to action. I
don’t just write to write, I want to inspire you to do something. So I read what I’ve written
with a filter of “What’s in it for me?” I want you to learn something practical that you can
When I’m done with those layers, I finally make sure I’ve got the right words in place. In
some ways I’m doing that all along, deciding that Def Leppard is a funny band name to turn
into a verb, for instance. But during this final layer I meticulously go through every
sentence to decide if I have my favorite words.
I don’t write drafts, I write layers and that word distinction matters. While researching my
new book on overthinking, I discovered that the names we give our work have weight.
“Drafts” is too serious for me. A draft is a complete work. That word awakens my
perfectionism and makes it hard to move beyond the first rendition of my work.
The word “Layers” gives me more freedom. It’s just a layer. Other layers will come. Other
layers will do their job. An architect would never stand on a muddy job construction site
and say, “Why did you only do the foundation? What a failure of a first draft!” Instead,
they’d recognize that big projects come in layers. The foundation was just the start. There’s
an electrical layer and a plumbing layer and a framing layer.
If you ever have a hard time finishing a first draft, try a layer instead.
Yours will be different, but every writer has them.
Write down three of yours today.
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