The Zero Draft: Starting Your Story Without the Pressure

Writing the first draft of a novel can be intimidating, but what if you could get your ideas down on paper without the burden of expectation? Enter the “zero draft,” the first draft’s less-structured, completely unpolished predecessor. The zero draft is the skeleton of your story; a document that allows you to work out the nuts and bolts with plenty of room for change and total permission to fail.

Some writers believe there’s no such thing as a zero draft – that either you have a terrible first draft or a set of notes – while others swear by starting with a malleable jumble of story. If you’re having trouble committing to an outline or have found yourself abandoning first drafts, the zero draft may be the missing step in your writing process.

Where to begin

What constitutes a zero draft will look different for every writer and project, but the first order of business is to compile anything you’ve written so far for your novel. Your research notes, random scene ideas you’ve stored on your phone, the brainstorm list of character names – bring it all to the table.

Once you’ve gathered all of your snippets, order them chronologically to the best of your ability. This will give you the jumping off point for an outline if you’re someone who plots their work, or if you prefer to discover the story as you go, it’ll jog your memory of what you have so far.

It’s only a matter of time before your zero draft becomes an unruly beast, so it’s best to begin developing a filing system if you don’t yet have one. Programs like Scrivener or yWriter allow you to create moving parts and as many subfolders as your heart desires, but you can also organize your work without fancy software. As with your zero draft itself, you may not know what you need until you begin the process, but it helps to have organization on your radar.

Choose your adventure

Whether you’re more comfortable outlining your work or tend to let the story guide you as you type, the purpose of the zero draft is to give yourself the mental freedom and structural flexibility to discover your story. As you begin the process, surrender to the idea that what you’re creating at this stage will be in constant flux. No character or plot point ever has to make it to your first draft, so don’t be afraid to test out any of the ideas you have for this novel.

When you’re ready to write, start with the route that feels more comfortable to you, knowing you can always switch approaches:

Route #1: If you’re more of a plotter…

Need an outline for your first draft, but can’t write the outline without discovering more of your story through writing? Welcome to the paradox many writers face. Zero drafting is a way to extend your outline until you feel comfortable enough to move on to an official first draft. Here’s one way to do this:

  • Create the most basic outline you can of your story, skipping over anything you don’t know.
  • Elaborate on what happens wherever possible, writing in plain language (i.e. “Jordan goes to the coffee shop. He meets Nathan.”).
  • Keep filling in and expanding this outline. Write whatever you can about your story – possible options for the empty spots in your outline, more detailed and expanded descriptions of the plainly written scenes, the dialogue you don’t know where to place yet, etc.
  • Don’t worry if you’re unable to move through your story chronologically; it’s more important to keep building anywhere you see opportunity. Place things where you think they’d roughly fit and keep fleshing out the story until the full, basic story materializes.
  • Embrace the particular freedom the zero draft brings. It’s easy to become married to your outline in later drafts, but this is the stage where you can experiment with any plot point or character arc that comes to mind.

Route #2: If you’re a “pantser”…

A zero draft is great for someone who winces at the thought of outlining but wants to get the bare bones of the story down and doesn’t mind the amount of rearranging they may need to do later. Here’s how you might proceed:

  • Start the story wherever feels right to you. This draft is unofficial and for your eyes only, so explore whatever part of the story you need to next.
  • At first, try focusing solely on the plot rather than your writing itself. Forget about grammar and spelling – write what happens in plain language.
  • To make things easier in the future, leave yourself a note within the text when you’re consciously skipping ahead.
  • If you get stuck, you can rearrange what you’ve written into chronological order to identify missing scenes.
  • As long as the story is flowing through you, keep following where it leads. You can tidy up later when you’re organizing your first draft.

Rest and revisit

Once you have the basic story written down, it’s time to rest your zero draft. Let it sit for a month or two and jot down any new ideas that come to mind in the meantime. When you revisit your writing, you may find the jump from zero to first draft won’t take much.

Conversely, if the story needs a lot of restructuring, it won’t be as difficult to let go of the generic text as it would beautifully written scenes. No matter the outcome, you have the majority of your story on the page and can progress to your first draft when the time is right.

Remember, the zero draft is an opportunity for you to delay your inner critic and let the creativity flow, so be gentle with yourself throughout this process. You can edit later, but for now, the goal is to find a way to open up to the story that wants to be told.

  • Posted by Julia McAlpine
  • July 13, 2020 7:32 AM PDT
If you’re having trouble committing to an outline or have found yourself abandoning first drafts, the zero draft may be the missing step in your writing process.




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