Writing Skeleton Drafts

Resolutions blog seriesThe arrival of the new year ushers in a long-standing tradition of New Year’s Resolutions. Some of you have decided this will be the year you finally write that book. But, as I’m well familiar with, resolutions are hard to keep past a few weeks, so for the rest of January I’ve decided to write a short blog series on writing tips to help you turn that resolution into a sustainable habit.

The first thing I’m going to talk about is writing a skeleton draft. As in, a draft so poorly executed that it doesn’t even deserve to be called a first. Any writing expert will tell you that the most important thing is to get something down. It’s much easier to edit and refine a sludge pile of words than a blank page.

At this stage when you’re first starting on a story, don’t worry about sentence variety, decent description, or even witty dialogue. If your characters sound like sock puppets in a soap opera, go with it. In fact, I would encourage you not to edit anything in a chapter until at least a day after you’ve written it. If you realize you need to change something, make a note to do it later. Just focus on finishing that skeleton draft of that scene or chapter—and give yourself permission to suck! I’m serious. Nobody ever said the definition of a good writer is someone who can type up gold on the first pass. A good writer can weave words into something beautiful and moving, and by the way, what does a woven basket look like before it’s formed? A pile of reeds! That sometimes gets tangled.

Doing the above isn’t easy. Many writers feel anxiety over not writing well enough. They’ll sit and stare at a sentence or paragraph until it’s perfect, but that usually means they don’t get very far into the story. Fear of failing can hold us back from ever trying. I just finished writing my 11th book and I still experience what I like to call First Draft Syndrome. For those first several chapters, I had a hard time concentrating and putting actual words down because what I wrote felt pathetic compared to the quality of work I’d published in the past. It took some effort for me to push those insecurities aside and write however poorly I needed to just to get the story going. And eventually I got on a roll. I also have to look back at previous books’ early drafts to remind myself that it is possible to go from word muck to a pristine novel. So can you. Just don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Remember, a finished novel is a diamond, but gemstones don’t just pop out of the earth like magic. It takes extraordinary amounts of pressure, sweat, and probably some tears. Embrace the rough stage as part of the process, and you’ll make it through.

Do you experience First Draft Syndrome? Is it hard to give yourself permission to suck at something, even in the effort to get better at it?

Next week I’ll be talking about a strategy to reduce some road blocks and pitfalls: plotting. Hope to see you then!


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10 comments on “Writing Skeleton Drafts

  1. Diana Beebe says:

    Great advice, Angela! I call all my first drafts “vomit drafts.” I just spew the words out and run where lead me. I’m a punster, but I try to outline first–I allow myself lots of room with that first draft.

    • That’s one of the ugly beauties of a first draft–the ability to have both a basic structure and the flexibility for surprises. (I say ugly beauty because while I’m sure it’s a positive thing, it still drives me crazy.)

  2. Diana Beebe says:

    Seriously, I don’t know what happened there… The browser autocorrected panster to punster. Unbelievable. I didn’t know IE was capable of “thinking.”

  3. I usually love the first draft, the getting the movie in my head down on paper. Of course, it isn’t fit for human consumption, LOL.

    Great post Angela!

  4. Alina Sayre says:

    This is an AWESOME post! I find it really, really hard to allow myself to write what I call “word vomit.” Sometimes my perfectionism can totally freeze creativity. But I’m going to try to take your advice, give myself permission to suck, and write some sock puppets into a soap opera in my skeleton draft 🙂

  5. […] Intimidated by the first draft? Go down and dirty with a skeleton draft. […]

  6. […] note: check out this article to learn more about skeleton drafts (it’s aimed at novelists but is still very […]

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