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How to Write a Draft Zero (and Silence Your Inner Editor)

15:00 EST - Apr 26, 2023

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Today I'm going to be talking about how to write a draft zero and silence your inner editor. 

I thought what I would do is kick off by discussing what I mean by draft zero. Then we'll talk a little bit about why we need this thing that I'm going to refer to as draft zero. Of course, other people call it different things. Most notably, many people call it the first draft or draft one, but there’s a reason I call it that. I'll also be talking a little bit about why I think it's important.

I only realized how incredibly important this draft is relatively late on when I was a fledgling writer and aspiring novelist. It made a huge difference to me. So I'm going to talk a little bit about why it's really important to separate the editing stage of the work from the writing stage. When you sit down at the desk in the morning or afternoon or evening to work, you should be very conscious of whether you are planning to write or to edit, because I think that's a very important distinction to make.

The final thing which we'll get into is why I think it's really, really important to give yourself permission to write badly.

The Experiment

I talk about a lot of this stuff in my Substack newsletter, which is sjwatson.substack.com. It also ties in a little bit with a new project called The Experiment. I was joking about there being a reason it's called The Experiment. Basically, I don't know how it's going to go. This is an attempt to try and put my money where my mouth is. To go with the things I talk about, especially around this issue of editing and writing, I want to basically write a novel in public.

The idea is that I'm going to be writing my first draft, my draft zero, but sharing it. The reason I'm slightly anxious about this is because the one thing I recommend is that you don't share your draft zero with anybody. You have to write it with a freedom that can only come from knowing that no one is ever going to see it and no one is ever going to read it.

But I want to really show people that when I say, you have to give yourself permission to do bad writing, that's exactly what I mean. I'm going to share my bad writing, essentially just to show that I'm no different to everybody else. Just because I've been in the Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller lists, it doesn't mean that my first drafts land on the page perfectly formed. That's why I'm sharing week by week, or fortnight by fortnight more likely, a chapter at a time, a book that I'm writing in real time with input from you, the audience. That's what The Experiment is, and hopefully that will give you a bit of context and background and support the talk I'm about to give. Let's dive into it.

What is a draft zero?

Isn't draft zero basically just draft one? That’s the question. It can be. You can call it what you like. For me, draft zero refers to the first words you put on the page when trying to tell your story. By words on the page, I don't mean the plan, I mean the first attempt at writing the story itself. The way that we can think about this is that a draft zero, in a way, is somewhere between an outline and a first draft.

You can think of an outline as being a plan — a scene by scene breakdown — or even just vague notes about where you think the story's going to go. As I'm sure we can all agree, plans can be a varying length and complexity. Some people don't have a plan at all, and they completely “pants” the book — they just write with no real idea where it's going to go. Other people have quite lengthy plans. It can be a series of bullet points. I know one very successful multi-bestselling author who told me that she writes 90 page plans for each of her books and the books are only 300 pages. So his plan is a third of the length of the book. It can vary hugely what you would call the outline or the plan of the book.

Then the first draft would, in my formulation of it, tend to have all of the basic elements in place. There'll be an attempt at making the writing good, not as good as it can be, perhaps not as good as it will be by the time that you've been through the complete drafting process, but there'll be an attempt at doing good writing even though it probably does need some restructuring and revision. Between those two extremes — a very rough outline and a well-written or an attempted well-written draft — you've got draft zero. 

For some people, a draft zero is very rough. It's not really much more than an extended outline, but unlike an outline, it will contain scenes, breaks, dialogue, description, so it will kind of flow and tell the story. It just might not be very good. For example, a draft zero will contain typos and cliches, things that crucially, even as you are writing them down, you know will almost certainly be changed, but you write them anyway rather than stopping and changing them in an attempt to make it a polished draft.

Draft zero a less polished first draft or an unpolished first draft, if you like. For me, that's the big distinction: draft zero will contain lots of things that even as you write them, you know they're going to change. 

My draft zero, for example, is actually reasonably polished. There's an attempt at decent writing, but it will definitely contain things that I'm not sure about yet, that I think will have to change, that I know is a tired cliche phrase, that is not what I want to include in the final draft. It'll also contain endless notes to self. I'll usually use square brackets, sometimes asterisks, sometimes just capitalize or highlight. Just make a note like, this will need to be developed later or this character should be called Dave. There'll be things that are occurring to me as I write that I'll make note of because I need to go back and change it or I need to remember to pick up in future writing sessions.

Why is it called draft zero?

So why do we call it a draft zero? Why not just call that a draft one and say the draft one is really rough and then draft two starts to get a bit better and drafts three and four are improving? 

I personally call it draft zero because it's a way that I trick my brain into believing that this stuff doesn't matter. I think that's one of the most crucial things about this initial draft of a book — just getting the words onto the page so you can then fix them. It's a cliche thing to say that a blank page is scary, but it kind of is. I think if you can get some words on a page, even if they're not very good ones, and even if as you write them, you know they're not going to end up in a finished book or a finished story or a finished draft, the blank page becomes less scary. It's got stuff on it. It's not blank anymore.

I like to think of it as being a  bit like an artist would stretch their canvas or would mix their paints before they start to paint their masterpiece. I think it's the same for me for the draft zero. The draft zero is just getting things ready. It's getting my material together. The crucial thing that I would like you to take away from this talk is that you should write the draft zero knowing no one will see it. You can be as bad and terrible as you like, you can write ridiculous notes to yourself knowing that no one is ever going to see them. 

As I said before, that's why The Experiment feels very scary for me, because I'm going to let people see it. But I'm hoping that people will get something from that.

Other people have different tricks in order to trick or convince themselves that this is not an important draft. For example, I know that DBC Pierre, who wrote a book called Vernon God Little which won the Booker Prize, writes his initial drafts under a different name. He creates a document with a different author name as a way of convincing or tricking himself into thinking it's nothing to do with him. 

Whatever works for you works to give yourself that freedom to write without fear of judgment. Because let's face it, as authors, we judge ourselves harshly enough. It's a good idea to not encourage judgment from other people. 

Why do we need a draft zero?

Why do we need to create this draft zero? Why is it so important? This ties in with this distinction to be made between separating the writing from the editing.

Writing and editing use different parts of the brain. What we want to do when we are writing is tell ourselves the story and get it out. For me, the holy grail of that is when we can get into what's called “flow.” Now, you probably all have an idea of what we mean by flow, but I like to think of it as what some people call “being in the zone.”

Hopefully, we've all experienced it at one time or another. For me, it's when you become fully immersed in an activity. When I become fully immersed in the writing, the work that I'm doing, I'm not noticing distractions.

I think for most people it's a difficult state to achieve, of truly being in the zone. But when you do get there, it's a great feeling. You realize that it’s been 90 minutes and you’ve not really looked up from your notepad or your computer and you haven't noticed the passing of time.

It's that feeling that every action and thought seems to flow very effortlessly from the previous one without very much conscious brain use. Of course, we are using our brains. In many ways we’re using them to a maximum capability, but it doesn't feel so conscious. It's a much more subconscious process. 

It strikes me sometimes that this is when people talk about the muse. When writing is going very well for me, it almost feels as though the story exists out there in the ether and I'm just the conduit. I'm giving it a form but I'm not actually inventing it. Of course, that's not true, but that's when you are really in flow. That's the state that we're trying to achieve, when it just feels as though it's flooding out of us and the story is coming almost quicker than we can type or write.

I think that's when we are really being creative. When I am in that state of flow, that's when I will find surprising things happening with the work. The brain will throw things up that I hadn't been anticipating. It's when I'm most likely to deviate from any plan that I've written. 

For example, in my first book, Before I Go to Sleep, I remember there being an entire plot twist or a whole plot arc that just came from nowhere. Something I wasn't anticipating was just suddenly there on the page. That's a wonderful feeling when that does happen, and that's what we're trying to do.

But that only happens when the area of our brain called the prefrontal cortex is less engaged. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that takes care of the higher cognitive processes. These include things like self-reflection and analytical thinking.

You can probably see where this is going. We need to disengage the prefrontal cortex in order to be able to enter this state of flow. That means disengaging the parts of our brain that are analyzing, that are doing that kind of analytical assessment of the work.

To oversimplify, we can really think of it as the left hand side of the brain is the logical part and the right is the more creative part. You can think of it in terms of being the left is for editing and the right is for creating.

Although we can switch between left and right relatively easily — we do it all the time in our day-to-day lives — when you are working, switching between left brain to right brain, creating to editing, editing back to creating, does slow us down. One analogy that I really like is that it's like trying to drive a car with one foot on the gas pedal and the other foot on the brake. We are trying to move forward and at the same time trying to slow down, which is obviously not going to be very helpful and we decrease, or even reduce to zero, our chance of ever reaching that state of flow, which is what we are trying to get into. 

What I'm really saying is this draft zero is something that we want to create, even though it probably will contain lots and lots of bad writing. One of the things I truly believe is you have to give yourself permission to write badly. I think we should be striving to write well. If you've got a great idea and a great image in your head, you should, even in your draft zero, be trying to write it as well as you can.

If that's not happening, and it doesn't really seem to be going that well, and you don't feel particularly comfortable with the work you're doing, and even as you are writing it you are thinking, “oh, this isn't very good” — stick with it. Resist the effort to stop, to switch brain hemispheres, to go into analytical mode, to start correcting things, to think too deeply about what you're doing, because that's going to decrease your chance of reaching that point where it starts to flow seemingly effortlessly.

I think it's worth remembering that when you read something which moves you or you think is brilliant or just feels perfect in some way, unlike when you look at a painting or listen to a piece of music, you can’t see or hear the effort. You can see the detail of the brushstrokes or you can hear the way the chords move together. With almost any other piece of art or creative work, when you experience it you also are very aware of the effort, time, and energy that's gone into it and the skill that it's taken to produce that thing. Whereas it's slightly different with writing because when you read a piece of writing that moves you or that seems to create an image in your head, when it's good it feels like there is no other way that that piece, image, thought, or idea has ever been expressed or could ever be expressed.

The irony is that when you read a great book, story, or essay, it feels like it's a first draft. It feels like it just fell out of Stephen King's or Margaret Atwood’s head onto the page. It's a really, really crucial thing to remember that nothing we read is ever a first draft. Even people who say their first drafts are very clean will still need their work to be polished and edited. At the very least, there’ll be typos, but more likely there’ll be cliches or more obvious mistakes that need to be taken out and re-worked, revised, and polished. 

Just remember that when you read something that's been published in whatever form, it's never a first draft. It's always been edited. In many cases the initial draft of it was not very good. 

Books are made in the edit. Stories are made in the edit. That's when the raw material approaches its final form. 

How to write a draft zero

How you go about this is up to you and different people do different things. Some people will write a whole draft zero from the beginning to the end. Then, they begin to revise, polish, and edit the whole thing. I know some people's draft zeros are a third of the length of the final book because they'd skim over things that they're not quite sure about yet. They don't put as much description in as they ultimately might or some of the dialogue might not be there at all. I know one author in particular that if she hits a stage in her book when two characters have to, for example, have an argument, she'll just write “big argument here” knowing that means that she can get on with telling the story. Then in the next draft, she can flesh out that argument when she knows the characters a little bit better. Whatever works for you works. 

Some people will write a whole draft and then edit it. Other people might write a draft zero of chapter one and then edit chapter one, and then when chapter one feels that it's done, then write a draft zero of chapter two and then edit chapter two and so on. Or you can go section by section, 50 pages by 50 pages. The crucial thing in all of this is not to write and edit in the same session.

If you are writing, write. Get the ideas out, get the words onto the page. I'm not saying rush it, I'm not saying type as quickly as you can. I'm saying type as quickly as you need to. Even if as you are typing you're aware that the line you just wrote doesn't belong there, it belongs at the beginning of the paragraph, or even the scene that you've in the middle of typing actually should have happened 3000 words ago, don't move it. Resist the temptation to move the chapter, scene, line, or even the word. 

I find it difficult to do this, but if you can, I wouldn't even correct typos. I type quite quickly, but I find it hard not to go back and retype the word so it's spelled correctly. As long as you can read it, as long as when you come to it you know what word you meant, it doesn't really matter. Just push on. 

At this point, the crucial thing is to be enjoying it. Writing is hard. But it's also supposed to be fun, at least some of the time. If you can get into flow and lose yourself in the story that you are writing, who cares if you've misspelled a word here or there or if you've used a cliche when something else could be better. If you can tell the story and get the words down, that’s great.

If you don't take anything else from this part of my talk, just remember a page of bad writing is better than a hundred pages of no writing. You can work with a page of rubbish, whereas if you've got nothing, you've got nothing. You're starting from scratch. So do give yourself permission to write really badly.

Tips and tricks for writing a draft zero

I also wanted to talk about things that you can do if you feel that the work is straying off course a little bit, if you're struggling to get into the flow, or if you're losing your enthusiasm for the work. We all go through stages where just dragging ourselves to the desk or to the notepad feels like an effort and we'd rather be doing anything else.

If you're going through a prolonged period of time where you are just not feeling it, it can be a good idea to take a step back and look at why that might be. Sometimes it's just because you're in the middle of a book. What can often happen is that when you've just started a new project, especially if it's a novel length piece of work, it feels new, it feels exciting, the ideas are there. You can't wait to get them down. It can be easier to get into that stage of flow and switch off your inner editor. At the end, you’re often thinking, “I'm nearly done,” and you've got that renewed burst of enthusiasm. But if you are in the middle, it can be a bit sludgy.

I call it the sludgy middle bit, which is not particularly poetic, but I think it creates the right image for me. It could just be that you're stuck in the middle, but if the work is resisting, if you're struggling to get into flow, if you're struggling to switch off the editor, maybe something isn't right. Maybe it's the work telling you that something isn't right. 

There are a few things you can do. Go back to where you felt that the work was flowing, where you felt it was easier to create, to achieve that state of flow. Often, deep down, you know where you went wrong. You might not want to admit it to yourself. It might be difficult to pinpoint exactly, but deep down you often will know more or less where you took a wrong turn. Start again from there or go back there at least. I find it really helpful to just free-write about why I feel I'm stuck, what seems to be happening, and why I am reluctant to pick up my pen. If you can excuse the cliche, free writing can unlock something.

It's a really good idea sometimes to get away from your desk. When I'm struggling, I very rarely have a breakthrough while I'm sitting at my desk. It's when I've given up, and I'm washing up or walking the dog or cooking, that's when the answer to my question will come to me. 

If you can, do something that's creative and absorbing, something that does occupy your brain, but that’s very different from the work you're doing. You're not thinking about the characters you’re writing about, you're not thinking about the plot point that you're stuck on, you're doing something very different that can help you to switch off that editor. Because, let's face it, the editor is the part of your brain that's going, “This isn't very good. You need to do better.” That's the part of the brain that you need to switch off. 

How to get into the flow

The last thing I'm going to talk about is some practical ways that you can get into the zone or get into flow where you're just creating and not editing if you’re struggling to do that. These are some practical tips that I've come across that can help you remain within the writing side of the brain, which is the right hand side. How can we stop ourselves from being tempted to edit as we go, which is what we shouldn't be doing. 

There is a program called Write or Die, which I've used in the past and is a bit hardcore, but I think it gives you the idea of what we're trying to achieve here. It's software which will start to delete words from the beginning of the piece if you leave too long a gap between writing two words. It's a bit brutal. It's the equivalent of forcing you to keep your pen in contact with the page and be continually writing words. That's one quite extreme method, but there are others that I've also found a little bit less scary because that can actually put me in a state of panic with the need to write my next word before I lose one.

It sounds very strange, but there are two things that I do, and the first is I switch my screen off. Especially if you use an external monitor with a laptop, it can be very helpful to turn the brightness down. Either switch the screen off or turn the brightness down. That then means you literally can't see what you are writing, so you don't know you've just misspelled the word “particular.” It forces you to push on. You can't look back and go, “Well, actually that paragraph should be at the top there and this paragraph, which was at the beginning, should be at the bottom." You can't do that cause you can't see it. It forces you to remain in that creative mindset of just getting words out there.

Similar, if not perhaps quite as hardcore or as brutal as that, I quite often make the text huge. I'm not talking about quite big, I mean huge, so it's almost filling the screen. That's another way that it forces you to focus solely on the words that you are writing because you can't easily look back and see what you wrote a paragraph ago. Obviously, when you are editing, this would be a terrible position to be in, but when you are writing that's the ideal position to be in. When you are not looking and analyzing where you've been, you're just concentrating on pushing forward. 

Switching the screen off or making the text very large can help. There are two other things that I can recommend. 

I use Focus quite a lot, which is a feature in a lot of Apple products. It’s essentially a way of blocking distractions. This is slightly different because it's not so much about keeping the editing brain at bay. It's really about keeping all distractions at bay. Focus or whatever the equivalent is on the system you use, is a way to switch off your phone. It's making sure you don't get WhatsApp messages or text messages or phone calls unless they're very important. If there's a way that you can cut out those distractions, that can also make it easier to get into the flow state where the editor disappears. 

There's also something called the Pomodoro technique, which you may have come across. For 20 minutes, you are going to do nothing else but the thing that you're engaged in. For us, of course, it's writing. After 20 minutes, the timer goes off and you have a five minute break, and then it's another 20 minutes. There are different ways of doing it, but some people will do three or four of those 20 minute bursts with five minute breaks, and then they're allowed a 15 minute break.

I find that beneficial because I can tell myself much more easily, “I'm just going to write without editing for 20 minutes.” Then after 20 minutes, I can have a break and then I can edit if I want for 20 minutes. It's just a way of dividing the time up, so you are very clear about whether you are editing or writing.

The last one, which many of you may do anyway, and is probably the easiest of all these techniques to try to stop yourself from editing as you go, is actually handwriting. I find that very helpful because you can't go back and delete a word or cut and paste this line from the beginning of the paragraph and move it to the end of the paragraph. The nearest I get to editing when I'm handwriting is drawing a circle around a line and then doing an arrow. Meaning even as I'm writing this, I know this should have gone earlier.

It's much easier to just keep the flow when you are handwriting and you haven't got that temptation, because you haven't got the ability to delete, to cut, to edit, to paste. So at a very basic level, if this is something you struggle with —just getting the words down — I would hand write them and give yourself permission to hand write badly, to rush through a draft. You might find that when you read it back the next day or the next week, 95% of what you wrote isn't very good and needs a lot of polishing, but I think you're more likely to find that the 5% will contain something you may well not have come up with had you been trying to edit and write at the same time and basically working with one foot on the brake and one foot on the accelerator.

That's my advice. Do whatever it takes to decide whether you are doing a session of writing or a session of editing, and then do whatever it takes to stay in one or the other. It's easier to stay in editing than it is in writing because the temptation's always there to edit. 

That's my talk. There's much more on my Substack newsletter, as I said. Do join in with The Experiment. My goal with The Experiment is to give you an idea of what this means in practice, what I mean by bad writing.

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