Step 7: Write the First Draft
Writing a first draft is exciting for some students and intimidating for others. Think of writing a first draft as just the first of several attempts you will make to engage with these ideas and to share them with your reader.
Write a First Draft
While it can sometimes happen that you start writing as soon as you’ve collected enough information on your topic, most of the time it is helpful to create space between the work of others and the creation of your own work. This space can be as short as the time to enjoy a cup of coffee or as long as a day or two of other activities. If any thoughts or ideas pop into your head during this time, jot them down in a notebook or send them to yourself by email or text so you won’t forget them.
Before you begin writing, spend time thinking about what you would like to say in the academic conversation. If any phrases, sentence fragments or interesting words come to you, jot these down. If any ideas about your work popped into your head, now is the time to pull them out and read them.
Sit Down to Write
Develop a writing routine to help you get started. For example, you might sharpen some pencils; line up your dictionary, thesaurus, and writing guide; stack your notes and outline on one side of your computer and some relevant books on the other side; pour a cup of tea; sit at your kitchen table. Now you’re ready.
Write anything that comes to mind, without judging. It may be part of your conclusion, the beginning of a description of your research method, or an elaboration of one point you find particularly interesting. Begin at a point you find the easiest. You can start at the introduction and work towards the conclusion or you can start at a point you find most challenging. Regardless of where you begin, your aim is to get preliminary ideas recorded rather than finely crafted. This is not the time to be critical of your logic or structure, or zealous about your choice of words. Just get it down.
Build on what you started writing by referring to your subject notes and any jot notes you have. Insert quotations in places where they seem to fit best, using short forms or symbols to avoid too much copying. If you have citation information that you need to include as you write, put brief references to these sources in brackets in the appropriate spot, and then keep writing. If you don’t remember the source, put in a notation to remind you to find it (e.g. (REF)). Try to avoid interrupting the flow of your draft writing with too many digressions in which you search through multiple notes or source texts, as this can distract you from writing.
Do not rush through writing a first draft. Take your time and include as many ideas as you can – research indicates that novice writers may write more by simply being prompted to do so (Bereiter and Scardamalia). Use your notes and outline to prompt you to include more points.
Silence Your Inner Critic
The first draft is just that – the first attempt. Don’t hold it to the same standard you will apply to your final text. Concentrate on communicating what you think, not on correcting sentence-level grammar errors, gaps in cohesion, errors in logic, or spelling. Too much labouring over every sentence in the first draft takes a lot of time and may not be efficient because you will likely make changes during later revisions.
Think About Your Work as a Story
Most writing tasks have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Use structure to prompt you to keep moving and avoid getting stuck at any one section.
Use What You Know About Genre
If your assignment fits into a specialized genre, make sure your draft fits into that form. If you need specific sections (e.g. background, discussion, summary, findings, etc.), set these up using subheadings, along with a references/works cited page, so that you can easily insert sections in the appropriate spot as you create them. Think of your draft in terms of modularity – separate modules that focus on one aspect of your ideas and are combined to create your whole paper. If your paper doesn’t require subheadings, use them anyway in your draft to keep track of your ideas and help structure your work. You can delete them later.
Save Your Work
If you are working on a computer, save often as you go, so you don’t lose your work unexpectedly. If you are working on paper, don’t throw out sections you’re unhappy with. Keep them in case you want to revise or include them in another section.
Don’t Stop if You’re on a Roll
If things are going well and the ideas are flowing, keep writing! It’s not easy to get into the state of “flow,” when your conscious efforts become automatic and a sense of excitement or creativity takes over. It’s better to keep writing rather than assume you will easily pick up where you left off, because it’s unlikely you will find it easy at all.
Take a Break
If you are struggling and feeling excessively frustrated, now is the time to stop. Try again later. While writing is frequently painful and usually difficult, you should learn to recognize when your difficulties are more harmful than they are productive, and take a break.
When you stop writing, avoid doing so at a natural “break” or between sections. It’s better to stop in mid-paragraph or mid-section so that you can more easily pick up your thoughts where you left off.
End on a Positive Note
Stop when you feel satisfied that most of the things you wanted to say are said. Read over your work, but avoid making any big changes. Add clarifications or insert notes about what you might need to expand upon or delete when you tackle revision, but don’t do it now.
How to deal with writing problems
There are many times when writing a draft can be particularly difficult. Some strategies to deal with these problem areas are suggested below.
If your draft is looking very short, you may realize that you haven’t generated a sufficient number of ideas to develop in your paper. It may be hard to acknowledge this, especially if you’ve found several good sources, read them, and are interested in your research question.
You need to develop some strategies to help identify additional ideas and incorporate them into your draft. Several strategies have been shown to be helpful – try any or all to see what works best for you.
Use of strategies which involve discrete, recognizable steps can provide the necessary structure to help students write more elaborated and complete texts. The most basic strategy is the writing process model which suggests three stages: planning what to say, translating plans into text, and reviewing the text. The steps are descriptive rather than formulaic and the process itself is recursive (i.e., it feeds back into itself) so there may be overlap between steps, making this strategy one that is adaptable to writers at various levels of expertise.
Other strategies work by using simple acronyms to prompt our memory to undertake certain steps in the writing process. One simple example is TREE (Topic sentence, Reasons, Examine, Ending). Using such mnemonic strategies to include more content relies not only on the use of an acronym, but on repeated practice using it, so that it becomes familiar and easy to use. Much of the work on strategy instruction has been done with students who struggle with writing or have learning disabilities, and has been found to be effective (Graham and Harris).
A simple habit to instigate is to examine every passage you have written in which you refer to or cite source information. Check that you have explained the context and also communicated the significance of this information. If not, add a sentence of two to elaborate on the source. Doing this for each source will build substance into the body paragraph and provide you an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge.
Freewriting is informal, timed writing in which you put your pen to paper (or type at your keyboard) without stopping, recording all your thoughts in a free-association, stream-of-consciousness sort of way. The idea is that by forcing yourself to write without thinking too much about each idea, you subvert your self-criticism and enable multiple ideas to emerge, some of which you might otherwise have rejected before adequately considering them. Try it for five or 10 minutes (use a timer), writing in response to your research question, and don’t stop to read over your work until the time is up. Afterwards, carefully read over and consider what you have written. Are there some points that interest you more than others? Are there any fragments that you see the potential to develop? While much of what you have written may be rambling or inconsequential, if you find even a couple of ideas that you can build on, freewriting might be very much worthwhile.
Similar to freewriting, brainstorming involves generating ideas by quickly writing words or brief phrases that relate to your topic as they come to you without elaborating on them. Rather than writing these down in prose paragraphs though, you create schematics, cloud diagrams, or Venn diagrams that graphically illustrate the connections between ideas and group related ideas together. This sort of idea generation is particularly helpful for people who like to think in visual or spatial terms. Brainstorming can also be done with a partner or group to generate a wider, more diverse set of ideas.
Genres, or typified text responses, are complex, interactive forms that can be used to help students recognize the kinds of elements that are common or necessary in response to different assignments. Examples of genre would be a critical book review or biology laboratory report. Identifying the standard components of a genre, its expectations regarding language and tone, and its physical appearance (format), can help you write towards these expectations. Examine texts that are good models of the kind of paper required and analyze them so that you can identify important elements and explicitly try to include them in your own work. For example, one genre element common to argument writing is that of introducing opposing opinions rather than maintaining only your own point of view (which is referred to as myside bias; Wolfe 2009). When you recognize that including and addressing discrepant views serves to elaborate your own ideas and strengthen your case, you can then use this genre element to improve your argumentative paper.
What is commonly referred to as “writing block” or “writer’s block” may be either a mild delay related to procrastination, or more seriously, a debilitating incapacity to write that can derail your best desires to complete written work. If the problem is not severe, the simple advice to write something, even a little bit, for a few minutes every day, may be enough to help overcome the block and lead to incremental gains in the amount written.
For those with significant procrastination issues, refer to resources for dealing with this problem such as The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel or Understanding Writing Blocks by Keith Hjortshoj.
For others, though, it may be best to work with a writing professional to systematically put in place methods and strategies that can help to overcome the block. Peer support, in particular, can be helpful for encouraging stalled writers; for instance, the creation of informal “writing support groups” or enlisting a writing partner who reads and provides feedback on your text are good possibilities for help over the long term or just for a particular assignment.