The 3 Phases of Writing A First Draft

Writing a novel is one of those activities that takes time. It’s something you’ll have to be willing to stick with for at least a year to a year and a half. So that’s why you’ve gotta love the process as much as you do the story you want to tell.

We all have story ideas bouncing around inside us, but most of us will never let those stories out. Because writing a novel is hard work. It takes love and dedication to write a story that’s worth telling.

At first the process of writing a novel can seem overwhelming. You may even be wondering how the hell you’re gonna take the idea in your head and turn it into a written document that’s cohesive and flows.

That’s when having a process to follow can make things a whole lot easier.

If you’re ready to finally let your story out, you need to learn about the three phases of writing a first draft:

  1. Story Development Phase
  2. The Planning Phase
  3. Doing The Writing Phase

If you want to ensure you only have to write one full draft of your story, you need to follow through with all three of these phases. Don’t skip any, don’t skip ahead, and don’t start writing before you really know what your story is about.

1. Story Development Phase

It’s during this phase that “Pantsing” comes into play (Pantsing means “writing by the seat of your pants,” without a plan or idea of where you’re going–thanks to Larry Brooks for that one!).

Pantsing should stay in this phase of your draft-writing process.

You can dig deep and find your story by sitting down and Pantsing some of it, whether it’s a random scene, an entire chapter or half of a draft. Pantsing can be a lot of fun because it’s like a writing adventure, just sitting down and seeing where the story takes you.

And now’s the only time it’s actually OK to listen to your characters and let them tell you whatever they want to tell you.

Use this phase to write your characters’ backstories. Use it to discover all the possible angles you could write from. Figure out what this story is really about; what story really wants to be told.

Sometimes the Story Development Phase mixes in with the Planning Phase, which is fine. As long as it doesn’t mix in with the Doing The Writing Phase.

2. The Planning Phase

In this phase is when you plan out the specific details about your story–who your Protagonist is, what his/her character arc will be, the structure of your story.

At this point, it’s no longer OK to listen to your characters. Your characters have spoken, and you have locked their lips and thrown away the key.

Now you are in charge of the story and its direction. 

The Planning Phase can sometimes being the longest (and most tedious) part of the process, but if you stick with it, you’ll save yourself a shitload of time and frustration during the Doing the Writing Phase.

It took me eight-plus months of planning to finally feel like I was ready to write the first draft of my current novel–but I had the draft written in two months thanks to the story “road map” I created and followed that included a list of every scene in my novel from beginning to end.

If you plan out enough details of your story–and don’t Pants any of it during the writing phase–you won’t have to do another full-draft rewrite after you complete your first draft.

3. Doing The Writing Phase

During this phase, you do nothing but write. No developing, no planning, just fingers-to-keyboard (or pen-to-paper) writing.

One thing that always helps me in this phase is using a program, like Scrivener, to write the draft. The reason being is I can write one scene at a time, which keeps me from re-reading what I wrote the day before.

And it keeps me from getting distracted while I’m writing because I only have to see and focus on one scene.

My suggestion is that you don’t enter this phase until you feel completely confident that you know everything you need to know in order to write your story. If you’re still not sure on the plot points, or if your main character isn’t developed enough, etc., head back to one of the previous phases and figure out what you need to change.

Unless you actually want to write multiple drafts trying to find your story, in which case, skip phases one and two, and just have at it.

The Idea to Draft Story Intensive

If the phases of the first draft process intrigued you, and you think you might like support from a professional writing coach, check out Idea to Draft. In this virtual coaching program we work together moving through all of the phases of your story (under tight deadlines), so you can come out at the end with your first draft written.

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What’s your process for writing a first draft? 

Image courtesy of Enokson

13 Replies to “The 3 Phases of Writing A First Draft”

  1. Hi Jennifer. Really liked this article and the structure you provide. I can’t seem to get all my pantsed material organized into a plan. Every time I look at the info and try I wind up overwhelmed and unable to find a start point. Any suggestions?

  2. I pretty much pantsed my first novel. Wrote a rudimentary outline, but as I wrote, the plot changed noticeably, so I ended up with a completely different ending as well as cutting many scenes that I first thought were important.

    My second novel (in second draft stage now) I pretty much followed Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering guidelines, along with using Snowflake Pro to come up with a log line, short synopsis, and scene by scene construction.

    I definitely prefer plotting to pantsing. Just my nature.


    1. I’ve used Larry Brooks’ techniques and wound
      up with a fairly solid story outline. Again, it’s the many details that wind up making me crazy. Snowflake Pro sounds very interesting. I’ll look it up. Thank you!

      1. @Joanna Randy Ingermanson (the Snowflake guy) is awesome! His Snowflake Method is the first thing I ever tried when it came to structuring a story. But when Larry Brooks came along, I pretty much found my method. Now I work from beatsheets and index cards, and write using Scrivener. Whatever works! I recommend trying out different methods ’til you find the one that works best for you.

    2. @Chris I’m with you on that one. If I pantsed my novels I’d probably never finish one. And not only am I about to be finished with one, but I’m about to publish it soon, too. Planning made the difference.

  3. Joanne, try writing snippets of the scenes on index cards. One color for each chapter or scene in the chaper… well, there are lots of ways to organize them, but I think the best ways (at least at first) is number a manila folder for each chapter or scene, then inside, number the notes/index cards within that chapter or scene. Lots of people do this in Excel. Chris mentioned using the Snowflake method- and that’s really helpful!
    ( )
    If you’re visual, try taking the index cards on a large wall/bulletin board. Then you can go back and add notes, quotes, etd., around the main scene idea., like a snowflake. (Trust me, notebooks don’t work as well!)

    I think 8 months sounds like a very long time to get a draft ordered, lol, here I am still working on one after 20 years.

    1. @Illoura 8 months may seem long for the planning stage, but I’m a perfectionist (it’s the Virgo in me) and I refuse to write a draft until I know every single scene and moment I want to foreshadow, etc. It may take me longer to plan the story out, but then writing it and fixing it up during the rewrite phase goes a whole lot faster.

  4. Jennifer;

    This post describes the process I’m using for my first ghostwriting biography project. Not a suprise, Found Larry B. Just after I picked up the contract. Historical biography plotted and themed as a “finding God” themed adventure romance. My client is an artist (more ADD than Iam) and that’s the way she tells her mother’s story.

    Your synopsis of the rmethod helps. Got to check out this beat thing.




    1. Hi Dave–I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve often found that this structure can also be used for other types of books besides novels, like memoirs. Stories are stories, no matter if they’re true or not. Good luck!

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