10 Rules for Writing First Drafts [Poster]

Image of 10 Rules for Writing a First Drafts Poster

Forgive me, for I am here to destroy your insecurities. Your excuses. The lie that suggests your first draft must be perfect. The illusion that great copy is born in a single moment of white hot inspiration.

I want to destroy those things so you can get down to the business of writing. And that begins with first drafts.

See, first drafts scare people into a state of inactivity. Even the greats. Kurt Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

So when a writer of his caliber makes a statement like that … do you think you will be any different?

You won’t.

You’ll make your copy adequate in the first rewrite. Good in the second. Great in the third and fourth. More likely in the fifth and sixth. And beyond.

But not today. Today is the day to write like a lunatic … or an invalid with a crayon crushed between his teeth. Just like our heroes.

And the best way to do that is to follow a few simple rules. Ten, in fact …

  1. Barricade the door. It must be just you, the ink, and the paper.
  2. Work in a physical and mental condition that makes you want to write. Get there by all means possible.
  3. Write yourself silly.
  4. Allow your imagination to go to weird places. Nothing is off limits. You can clean up your mess later.
  5. Break every writing rule known to man.
  6. It’s OK if it reads like a letter from a lunatic.
  7. Steal stylistically from other writers, as all great writers do.
  8. Keep your bottom in your chair until you are done.
  9. Once finished with your first draft, leave it alone for days — if not weeks.
  10. Celebrate.

PDF Poster*: Download the poster version of these rules in PDF, suitable for printing and hanging near your workspace when you need to see it most.

Shareable Graphic: Or, if you’d prefer to publish the image of these rules on your own site, we’ve got another Copyblogger Shareable with handy embed code below …

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Reader Comments (66)

  1. says

    Thanks for the graphic. Completely agree – writing is a process. If you write the first draft as if it was your last, you are very likely going to end with writer’s block. It has happened to me lots of times – still does. Completely agree with “Once you have finished a draft, leave it alone for days – if not weeks”.

  2. says

    The first draft for me is the most important stage of writing. I always write in the same way that I talk so it is a conversational piece that my customers can understand. From there, editing can begin, although I can honestly say I’m never truly happy with any piece of content until after a third professional edit.

    Thank you for the poster!


  3. says

    Stellar poster and way practical advice!

    Anne Lamott has an outstanding essay called “Shitty First Drafts,” in which she says, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

    I’m definitely gonna supplement Lamott with your poster in my WRI095 course this Fall.

    I hope all that’s “safe” for work… 😉

    • says

      All great stuff, but what happens when you’re expected to turn things around SAME day or in 24 hours- essentially publishing what IS your first draft?

      • says

        There is no such thing as publishing your first draft. Well, okay, there is, but you shouldn’t. And if you do, you should probably warn people.

        But even within that window of 24 hours (I’ve done it dozens of times myself), then you set it aside for a couple of hours for the thing to sit. Or just one hour. And do that two or three times. And please share with someone else. Get a fresh set of eyes on it.

  4. says

    You know, I know this, but I don’t follow it. I need to hear it – so thank you. I’m writing the hardest briefing I’ve ever done and I’ve invented new ways to procrastinate, some I can’t even believe I’ve thought of.

    This post and your poster came at exactly the right (or write) time. And after this thank you note I’m printing the poster and shutting off everything until this darn first draft is laying its ugly deformed body in front of me. Then out to play for the weekend and I’ll start the surgery Monday.

    Thanks Demian. You rock!

    David Pederson

  5. says

    Hi Demian, nice post, and thanks for the infographics. My first draft for me, is one of the most important stages of writing.

    You know what Demian? I’m printing this post out!


    Thanks man

    Daniel, the ”web content writer”

  6. says

    What a winner you have here Demian. It’s inspiring. Congrats. I always tell writerphobes to just barf up their ideas as if they were talking to their friend and magic just may happen.

  7. says

    Nice post (and poster)! Curious–which draft was it?

    Funny how good writing creates the illusion that it was easy. But it never is. We have to start somewhere. Every shiny vase starts with a lump of clay, can’t start with anything else.
    Which suggests that there are no great writers per se, only great re-writers.

  8. says

    Thank you. I needed this badly this week. I’m on my second draft of a novel and feeling like it’s so not ready. The paragraph that says, “You’ll make your copy adequate in the first rewrite. Good in the second. Great in the third and fourth. More likely in the fifth and sixth. And beyond,” will help keep me going during this low point in my writing process.

  9. says

    Thanks for the graphic! I put it on my Website. A great reminder — I tend to try to write the first draft as if it were the last and this is a really great way to remind me not to do that!

  10. says

    I like it, Demian. You can’t run a mile unless you take a first step and sometimes taking that first step (ie: writing that first word) can seem impossible if you put too much pressure on yourself to make it the best first stepyou’ve ever taken. Just go. Do something.

    I find a lot of my writing is a result of trial and error. Say it this way; now say it that way; rearrange; cut, cut, cut; try a different angle.

    I live by the quote “the best ideas come from movement” and this post ties right into that philosophy.

    Great share!

  11. says

    Hi Damien,

    First: I totally agree with the tenants of this article. I practice them, even with copy I have to turn around in only hours. (Granted, I don’t get to put that copy down for very long before I edit it.)

    BUT…the “invalid with a crayon in his mouth” commentary bugged me a lot. So an amputee who can’t write “normally” apparently can’t write anything but crap? His writing always = bad first drafts from “normal” writers?

    I’m physically disabled. (Though not an amputee.) I can’t sit at a “normal” desk and work like a “normal” person. (Though I do type on a laptop.) One of the things I love best about writing is that not only can I do it–I can do it well. So can many of my friends whose ability levels vary widely–from perfect health to quadriplegic.

    Writing is awesome because you don’t have to have a perfectly functioning body to be a GREAT writer. That “invalid with a crayon in his mouth” could use the crayon to create the next Harry Potter.

    • says

      Hi Liz, sorry that illustration bugged you, but I think you misunderstand the point. Vonnegut wrote some stellar books (some would argue better than Harry Potter) … he was just saying it didn’t come easy. At all.

  12. says

    I was just talking about this with one of my friends. When you’re writing the first draft, you’re just trying to get everything down on paper.

    The sanding and scraping begins after that. Like when you’re refinishing a piece of furniture, if you get into too much of a hurry, you can ruin the piece.

    Great article as usual. Demian, you really have your finger on the pulse of your readers.


  13. says

    Loved this piece. Thanks for giving away shareable graphics and PDFs. Will print this out and put it up on my wall. Completely agree with the first point and the one about writing silly.

    You’ve got to let the thoughts flow and edit them later. That’s why it’s called a draft :)

  14. says

    Good stuff. Thanks, Demian.

    Stephen King wrote “Write with the door closed, edit with the door open”, which I translate as “first draft with the door closed”. I’m also a big fan of your point no. 4 – allowing anything to happen, wild ideas leaping into the fray, characters or themes hijacking the plot, anything that bubbles up.

    The question for me is – is first-drafting a dying art when it comes to blogging? With the constant pressure to publish, how many bloggers have the discipline to second-draft their work or sit on it for a while until they can see the flaws in it? As you’re outlining here, it’s still (and will always be) a vital skill to master for creating writing that sinks deeply into the world…but is online first-drafting in danger of being seen as impractical and unfashionable?

    • says

      I think the bloggers who don’t edit or revise their work will be found out. Resist the temptation and you have a distinction over those who don’t. Refinement will pay.

  15. says

    I think “Once finished with your first draft, leave it alone for days — if not weeks” is my biggest problem. I’m always on a tight schedule and want to get things done. I’ll be sure to use this advice in the future.

    Thanks for the great post Demian!

  16. Jennifer Meador says

    Damian, you specifically state it’s ok to embed in blog post or on website; would I require any additional permissision to include it in a digital magazine?

  17. Catie says

    One single thing that thought me how to do first drafts was NaNoWriMo. While the concept as a whole doesn’t completely suit my way of writing, since it doesn’t give me time to let the ideas grow and develop in my head, it has thought me to stop fussing over every word and every scene and to shut my brain down (along with my inner editor) and just WRITE. These ten rules might as well be rules for NaNoWriMo, they all perfectly apply. But it’s one thing to try and stick to these rules, and quite another when NaNoWrimo forces you to follow them weather you want it or not. I believe every writer needs to try it at least once, or until he wins it :) It’s a wonderful learning experience.

  18. says

    I agree with all your points, especially with write yourself silly to help find your voice and style. It’s the only way to get writing and start to get better at it.
    From a b2b point of view I think it helps to do some research, do some brainstorming, check some keywords ( but not abuse them), add your personal touch make sure you cover the issues.

    I think we all get better over time. I’ve published too quick on a number of occasions on my blog, but corrected some glaring errors over the next few days. So a good point about not rushing things.

    I think blogs are good for that. But with time it gets easier. Maybe consider hiring an editor or proof reader to help sharpen up the writing. I’ve done that a few times and had some really good suggestions.

  19. says

    Great post, Demian and some great tips. What most don’t realize is that the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches of all time, was rewritten and practiced over and over. Lincoln did not sit down and write a great speech. He worked on it very long and hard.

    If Lincoln can do that, so can we.

    P.S. Demian is an upcoming guest on Marketing Made Simple TV. Stay tuned.

    Jeff Ogden, Creator and Host
    Marketing Made Simple TV

  20. says

    #1 is impossible for me, as I don’t have a physical door to close behind (my desk is in the middle of my parents’ apartment).

    #9 is my rule unless I’m on a tight schedule or I’m behind on it.

    Anything in the middle is magic! 😀

    ~ Luana S.

  21. Deborah Penner says

    Thank you! The perfectionist gets to take a nap for the first draft … and be a little drowsy for second … Yes !!

  22. says

    You nailed it.

    For me, a first draft is basically just holding on to my pen as tight as I can and sprinting to the finish line. If you start looking back, you get bogged down in all the details, and that’s where the self-doubt starts to slip in.

    It’s anything but a pretty process, but it sure feels good when it’s over! Then you can take your time chiseling out something great.


  23. Jennifer Meador says

    Hi Demian,

    I requested permission from you, quite some days ago, to republish the poster in a digital mag. However, I am having issues using my iPad and getting it to copy the poster so I can place it in the mag…any ideas to help me get it done?

    I only want the “list” and poster, if that’s acceptable with you…Thanks, and yes, I certainly will Attribute!


  24. Nick says

    If you can’t write good copy with all hell breaking loose around you won’t get far. Few places these days have anything but open plan, but part of being a pro is being able to write copy whilst having a conversation and listening to someone tell everyone about their weekend.

    And while trying not to sing along to the music coming out from the artworkers’ macs.

      • nick says

        I don’t have a lot of time for people who whinge that they can’t concentrate with all the noise around them. What do they think they are getting paid for?

        Nor for those who sententiously say ‘do you want it done now or do you want it done right?’

        The answer is ‘Both. We could get a slow, useless writer a lot cheaper’

  25. says

    Many thanks for confirming that not only do we need drafts, but we cannot do without them. Imagination and brainstorming are indeed key. Being alone and in a comfortable place also helps A lot. I, for one, will not write a single word if there is anyone around or – worse – looking over my shoulder.

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