You don't want your first draft to be okay. You want to kill it.
My writing process is as fickle as I can be. And if I look at a draft that sucks... it's hard for me to stay emotionally involved enough to continue to care. If you’re like me, then you want your first drafts to be as successful as possible. You want to feel like every time you go in to write and rewrite, you're well on your way to a masterpiece.
My reasoning for this is not just my own mania, but I want to show them my reps these drafts and get them excited for what they can become. That’s why I started using these five strategies to make sure my first drafts were killer and continued my enthusiasm for the idea.
Let’s jump in!
5 Steps to Murder Your First Draft (by Writing Well!)
1. Outline Your Idea!
I know this is No Film School, but let me indulge you with a story about film school. I used to write and let the muse carry me. Then, when I got more and more deadlines, I began struggling even to finish one page. I was not able to manage my life.
I never used to be an outliner, and it showed. I’d open my screenwriting software and type and type until I felt like the story was out there. This was fun and allowed me to make changes on the fly, but it left me with first drafts all over the place. Or, honestly, my first drafts sucked. And so did my second. And third. And so on.
That’s when I learned to outline, and outlining saved my life.
You don’t need to Save the Cat or use any other fancy guru tools. Outlines should be whatever your personal process reveals. Often, my outlines are just long lists of scenes for the A and B story. I make them separate, then weave them together, then I rewrite the outline and add the connective tissue.
Outlines are your tool, so make them work for you. Organizing your thoughts can help you solve all the problems you run into when writing the first draft. They also can energize the actual writing of the draft. A great outline will mean you spend time filling in the dialogue and writing the slug-lines because you already have the story figured out.
I use the Story Map I'll put below. And now, my first drafts feel much more cohesive and well-planned. And I don't have a problem producing pages.
2. Research the Topic
So much thinking and work go into coming up with your idea that sometimes you forget research can make it feel authentic. We tend to think about researching screenplays only when doing biopics and period pieces. But it would help if you actually researched everything you write. Get to know the people who might inhabit your world and even expand ideas for interesting locations.
You should also be specific with details in those places so the reader really understands the world, even if they have never visited before.
When I wrote Shovel Buddies, I ran into a lot of problems. I know the city the kids were driving around, but I didn’t know any of the intimate details about cremation, which was central to the story. So I did a deep dive on Google and went out into the world. I visited a few funeral homes, did my research… and when the methods didn’t sync all the way up with my story… I just made stuff up.
That’s right. I’m suggesting that you do the research and then mold it to what you need.
Shovel Buddies hinged on bodies being cremated in coffins so that I could have the kids accidentally steal their dead best friend. My research said 90% of places burn the bodies. But when I visited some places, I did see boxes that housed the bodies. So when it came time to write Shovel Buddies, I just kept the boxes and said the bodies were cremated inside. Those boxes allowed me to fudge specific details to make it sound like I was an authority on cremation.
In fact, when we filmed the movie at an actual crematorium, the head looked at our set and commented on the boxes, saying he heard about some places doing it that way. I nailed it, even with my lies. And writing a great story you make up is basically lying for entertainment. So there you go.
Research can also bolster your outline. And bolster the bullshit you need to make your idea work.
3. Start Each Day from Page One
I got this idea from watching Eric Roth talk on his Academy Awards Creative Spark video. He says that no matter what page he’s on in his first draft, he begins every day from page one. Doing this helps turn your first draft into something closer to a third draft. I remember hearing that and going… "Duh!"
I'll say that I think this one is the most productive in this entire list of ideas. Beginning at page one vastly changed the way I write. It made me plant and payoff more ideas and built better characters with more nuance.
As you know, the adage is “all writing is rewriting.” If you get your rewrite and writing accomplished simultaneously, you put yourself and your script in a better position to succeed. This “polish as you go” philosophy may slow down your writing, but it creates the best first drafts. You’ll find that you can accurately assess problems as they go, fix them, and keep going.
Eventually, your first act will be perfect, the second act polished, and the third act slick, all because you started at page one day after day. It might take you longer to finish your first draft, but it's a draft that is really tight.
With the “page one” method, I’m way more into what I have when it’s done. I love going back and tweaking because it feels like a much more professional draft.
4. Polish and Spell Check Your Work
Look, if you read a lot of my work at No Film School, you know I am the typo master. I have lots of excuses, but I won't bore you with them. The fact of the matter is, no one wants to see typos in your screenplay. They can be distracting and take away from someone's concentration on the story.
This is a boring step, and I know that, but you have to get through it. The most annoying thing about writing is fixing nit-picky things like spelling and grammar. I love tackling ideas, writing new set-pieces, expanding the dialogue, planting and paying off things, but I hate working dangling participles and figuring out how many times I misspelled “remember.” Still, the thing to do to make it feel polished is to… well… polish.
You need to keep every draft you write organized, so save them as you go. Especially with the spellchecked versions. I save them at the end of every day and label them. Please make sure they go to a cloud or an external too. You want backups just in case.
5. Leave It for a Week (or Two, or Three)!
You want your writing to age like fine wine. I know it's tempting to want to jump right into more work, but sometimes not writing is writing. When you’re done with the first draft, wait a week or two. You can start a new idea or even just take a break.
Mental health matters!
Then, after all of that... you're allowed to reopen it and go through your draft again. First drafts are the time you want to race to the end and finish. But pump those brakes. You may have typed “Fade Out,” but wait a week or two. Waiting gives you time to rest your mind, rethink your ideas, and reassess what you loved about the story in the first place.
You can get out there, have fun, and distract yourself.
This time, when you start at page one, you're actually reading with some intent. You know exactly where the story is going, and you can pause to add the moments that bolster this story and add quiet moments where we learn to love the characters.
Summing It All Up...
I hope these five tips help energize your next first draft. Get in there like the assassin you are and start killing pages left and right. When my first draft sucks, I feel like all my hopes and dreams are dead. It's my wish that these advice pieces help propel you away from those feelings.
No matter what, sit down, open your laptop, and write. These tips may not be perfect for your routine, but I’d love to know if you have a riff on them. Or strategies you think could expand this list. So hit the comments and let me know!
I can’t wait to read what you write next.