Taking Flight: First Drafts

A wild turkey crossed the road in front of me this morning, and as I slowed, it started to run through the grass—running, running, running in a most unseemly fashion before spreading wings, lifting into the air, and taking flight.

Starting a piece of writing is sometimes that way for me. I feel like I’m running and running but nothing is lifting up from the page. I often have plenty of forward momentum in a first draft, but I also have the sense that things haven’t really started and I’m waiting for that feeling of liftoff. It’s a matter of sensing that I don’t really know what the piece is about. I don’t know what it is that I’ve come to the page to explore. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that it’s okay to know very little when I begin. I’ve learned to trust that the writing itself will show me what’s important.

A first draft is a draft of discovery. In that draft, it’s probably better to know very little so we can be open to where the writing takes us. The draft is always smarter than we are. It schools us. It shows us what matters. If we’re open to the instruction, our subsequent drafts will take flight. We need to understand that the only thing that matters in a first draft is that we’re putting words on the page, lots of them. Let the piece goes where it wants to go. We can shape it after we know what it is.



  1. Stuart Rose on June 9, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Any thoughts, Lee, on taming that first, billowing draft? Or should I say, how to comb through the happy wreckage for what the piece is about. One challenge I have faced is that several possible themes or angles seem to stick out.

    A different problem- at least for those of us with dull Ockham’s razor- is being bold and immaculate enough to shelve all the lines and tangents we find just good to let go.
    I suspect one thing that separates accomplished writers from those of us still in training is a keen sense of what is necessary in a piece and what is fun but destined to sink it.

    • lee martin on June 10, 2014 at 8:42 pm

      Stuart, I sometimes rely on the last move of a piece to show me what it’s about, or sometimes I find a place in the draft where the writing is white-hot and I let that urgency tell me what the heart is. Then I ruthlessly cut everything that doesn’t belong and add on whatever is necessary to that center of the piece. Thanks very much for the good question.

  2. Bren McClain on June 9, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Wow, did I ever need to read your words today, Lee. Thank you.

    • lee martin on June 10, 2014 at 8:43 pm

      Hope they helped, Bren.

  3. Carl Wooton on June 10, 2014 at 11:20 am

    Amen, Lee. 20K words into a draft that is still trying to reveal to me where it wants to go. Hope to get a handle on it by the time we meet in VT.

    • lee martin on June 10, 2014 at 8:43 pm

      Good luck, Carl. I’ll see you in VT.

  4. M "Dianne" Berry on June 23, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks, Lee, all. In my experience, much of what the draft does is simply solidify what I “thought”. And if it doesn’t sound too esoteric, much of the plot, hook, etc. are born in a continuing thought process rather than on the paper. In other words. It’s about FINISHING what you have so far. Time will bring in the fill-ins.

    I would summarize the draft process by saying your book/writing has a will of its own, and will reveal the author while hammering to its final homestead!

    • Lee Martin on June 24, 2014 at 2:26 pm

      Dianne, I quite agree that the draft always knows where it’s going, sometimes long before we do. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  5. Susan Cole on August 4, 2014 at 4:11 am

    Lee, I hope you will receive this belated post. A few weeks ago, I finished a first draft of a memoir I’ve been working on for about seven years. After the initial thrill, I have been feeling somewhat daunted on how to go about revising (I revised much as I went along). My first attempt has been to start in editing from the first chapter; now, that doesn’t feel right. I like what you said here, and now I’m thinking of printing it all out and simply reading, to see what stands out. Any advice?

  6. Lee Martin on August 4, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Susan, I think it’s important to get some distance from a manuscript before revising. At a point when you feel that you can look at the ms. with fresh eyes, read it all the way through, taking notes of what stands out for you, what needs to be bulked up, what needs to be cut, etc. in order to get to the final move of the book in a way that will resonate with the reader.

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