Writing the Discovery Draft


On Monday, I wrote a post about writing as discovery.  And after I finished it, I intended for that to be my last word on the subject.  But then I started thinking (I do that once in awhile) about how writing as discovery impacts our works in progress.

Because it does.  And if you're not letting it, you should.

I've written a ton about the writing process over the years, and always, always, always, I emphasize that the first step is to write a rough draft.  Also known as a Shitty First Draft, courtesy of Anne Lamott, or a Discovery Draft, thanks to my friend Darnell Arnoult.

What is a Discovery Draft?

It is the first draft that you write to uncover the story.  Sure, you've done your prep work and you've written a loose outline or synopsis, so you're pretty sure where you're going.  But nine times out of ten, a character will walk on and demand a role, or suddenly your existing characters go off on a tangent you hadn't expected.  And then everything looks different, doesn't it?  You've got to allow these magical things to happen and you've got to write to figure these out how to fit these magical things into your story.  So, think of the Discovery Draft as you figuring out the story.  In successive drafts, you figure out how best to dramatically present the story to your readers.

How do you write a Discovery Draft?

After you've done your prep work, you have at it.  You start at the beginning and write to the end.  If you have ideas for changes, you make note of them, saving them to deal with in the next draft.  Let me reiterate: you start at the beginning and write to the end. You just keep going, through all changes and new ideas.   You write as if you've made the changes and keep going. 

Why?  Because once you get to the end of the draft, you're going to understand more about your story.  You'll know more about your characters.  You're going to know more about theme.  In short, you'll know a ton more about every aspect of your novel or memoir.  You'll understand things about it that never even occurred to you when you started out.

And then you get to start over again, this time with a clear concept of what your story is and how you want to present it.  So what are you waiting for?  Go to it!

I'd love to hear how you go about writing a Discovery Draft.  Please comment and share your experiences with us.

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Just do it.  Go write your draft, start to finish.

How are you doing with your flow of ideas?  I've just posted a new class that covers every aspect of ideas.  Check it out!

Photo by pll.

8 Responses to Writing the Discovery Draft

  1. Sandra / Always Well Within 03/07/2012 at 13:31 #

    I’m terrible at writing from start to finish without stopping! I just managed to do that – more or less – and it was a remarkable experience. But I think I just happen to be in a good flow! For me, it actually takes practice to write from stop to finish, but I see the benefits that you have outlined clearly. I need to practice more!

  2. Charlotte Dixon 03/07/2012 at 13:49 #

    And, it sounds as if you are already practicing! It does get easier. And after you do it, there is that marvelous euphoric feeling.

  3. Don 03/07/2012 at 18:40 #

    Practice, practice, practice that is the one thing that I have to practice more-and-more. It’s not easy but you got to start somewhere and my first ‘First Shitty Draft’ is just that ‘shitty’, but once I get started on my first draft the quicker I can finish the second, third or how many drafts I need to do. I have to agree, it really is easier after your first draft is finish, and it truly is a euphoric feeling when you can look back and compare your final draft with that of your first!

  4. Charlotte Dixon 03/07/2012 at 20:35 #

    That’s what I love–that euphoric feeling when you let the writing flow. And, I agree, it can be very hard. But way worth it!

  5. J.D. 03/08/2012 at 04:44 #

    Good stuff, Charlotte. I think setting out to do this first draft, knowing it is not the finished product, will help me. I want agonize so much over where the thing is going or what the correct word is. I won’t freeze up so much.

  6. Carole Jane Treggett 03/08/2012 at 07:39 #

    I really like how you suggest writing the discovery draft from start to finish, but especially : “You write as if you’ve made the changes and keep going.”

    I’m habitually getting sidetracked from moving forward and actually finishing a writing project because of the detours of changes I discover/know I need to make along the way. Your suggestion to just adjust to the changes and keep travelling to the end (destination) is brilliant, Charlotte. Just like a GPS does when one goes off course. It recalibrates and proceeds to give you directions from the location of where one has veered off to, not stubbornly insisting on the original plan :)

  7. Charlotte Dixon 03/08/2012 at 14:22 #

    Let us know how that works out for you, J.D. I think you’re right–it should ease the way a bit and prevent those dreaded freeze ups.

  8. Charlotte Dixon 03/08/2012 at 14:24 #

    Yeah, it can be a bit disconcerting to keep writing if, say, you’ve changed a character from male to female, but at the same time that “as if” attitude is pretty inspiring. And it really does help to get a full draft under your belt. Then you understand your story and you can go back and start molding it.

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