But first, let’s draft it

Writing anything can be daunting. You don’t want to write something ridiculous or unusable, and you definitely don’t want to look silly in front of your co-workers. You might want to write the perfect piece first time, but that might not produce your best work.

Bethany James

Drafts are really useful to filter through ideas and settle on a really clear, concise concept to work with. To help with any worries you have about writing first drafts, I’ve prepared some guidance on how to write a good first draft.

How to write a good first draft

Step 1: Write anything.

It really is that simple. The only way to write a bad first draft is to not write anything at all. You can always edit and first draft, but you can’t edit a blank page!

Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.

– Jane Smiley, author.

Why you should love writing first drafts

Now that we’ve covered how to write first drafts, let’s explore why you should love writing them.

Writing anything is like building a house. No matter how amazing your interior design is, or what colour you’ve painted the walls, the house won’t stand without a solid foundation.

A first draft is that foundation. It’s your opportunity to collate all your ideas and thoughts into a single place. Whether you think they are good or bad, getting them out of your head and onto paper will help focus your mind. It’s the experiment stage!

It’s also a great way to fix any big issues early on. If you list out the points you want to make you can start to see patterns and problems emerging.

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build sandcastles.

– Shannon Hale, author.

What not to worry about in your first draft

The great thing about a first draft is there are no expectations for it to be the finished product. If you understand this, and your colleagues and line managers understand this, it frees your mind to creativity.

When writing a first draft, don’t get bogged down with:

  • writing quality
  • grammar
  • word choice
  • structure
  • readability
  • accessibility

All these things can be fixed in the editing process. The important thing is that ideas and big issues are covered in that first draft.

First drafts can be a list of headings or bullet points. They can be a sketched-out webpage with squares and lines. Anything that helps you and your team build that foundation.

Don’t be daft! Share your draft!

First drafts are not something to be hidden away and worked on in secret. There’s no reason to never let it see the light of day until you think it’s close to publishing quality. Sharing first drafts is amazing! Everyone is different, so everyone reads and understands things differently. By sharing your first drafts, you’re able to work in collaboration to create something brilliant.

If everyone understands that a first draft is meant to be pulled apart and built back up, it opens teams up to creativity and collaboration. Just think, if George Lucas had kept the first draft of Star Wars a secret until box office opening night, kids would be dressing up as Luke Starkiller!

Once the main ideas are set in stone, you can build up the structure. Then you can decorate it with the perfect words and excellent grammar. And before you know, your first draft is supporting a 3-bed semi.

Creating a first draft culture

In the Communications and Marketing team at Essex County Council, we try to share first drafts as much as we can. Every member of the team works slightly differently so we don’t follow a formula for what a first draft should look like.

The layouts of the first drafts I have seen in the last few months include:

  • a bullet point list of ideas
  • a list of headings and sub-headings only
  • post-it notes on a Miro board
  • a summary of users needs or a user story
  • a rough flowchart of the user’s journey through the information and how it links to other resources
  • a sketched-out diagram of what they imagine the page will look like
  • a mind-map
  • prose

No layout is better or worse. It depends on what you find most effective and easiest to work with. The main thing is that you write something tangible you can share with your colleagues.

This culture isn’t created overnight. You’ll need to try a few different ways to get into the habit of sharing first drafts.

You could try:

  • having short first draft meetings where you share your thoughts and get feedback
  • sending a first draft round and let colleagues add comments or questions
  • starting a collaborative first draft using platforms such as Miro

Whatever works best for you and your team. The main thing is to open up about first drafts and create a culture where teams and managers alike see the value in the process.

What’s next?

Once you have created your first draft and shared it with your team, the real fun begins. This is the part you start buildings the walls and decorating!

It’s a good idea at this stage to focus on the user needs and user journey. Your finished content should always have the user in mind. Bringing this consideration in at an early stage will definitely help with your content development. You can read more about designing user-centred content on our Communications and Marketing toolkit.

Just remember:

  • there is no limit to the number of drafts you can write before the completed content
  • continue to share your work throughout the drafting process
  • your final content isn’t always written in stone. You can always test, improve and test again.

My first draft

I thought it only fair that I share with you some of the things that were in my first draft for this blog post. That’s right, I’m breaking the fourth wall!

Here are some of my original thoughts:

  • make use of an Ernest Hemingway quote about first drafts and explain why Hemingway was wrong (search ‘Ernest Hemingway first draft quote’ and guess why I decided against it)
  • celebrate the fact that all first drafts are bad and that’s ok
  • make it an educational piece about the purpose and importance of first drafts

Here are some of my first lines:

  • It's a truth universally acknowledged that all first drafts are bad
  • It’s a hard pill to swallow, but first drafts are normally bad
  • Most, if not all, first drafts are bad, and that’s why they’re so perfect

What helps you get your ideas down on paper in a first draft? Share your tips in the comments below!

If you’re a colleague at Essex County Council, don’t forget our toolkit has loads of advice about content creation and how to plan and deliver communications and marketing activities.

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