Three Steps to a Good Quality First Draft

Take what you do, find the simplest way of doing it, and ignore shiny things that promise to do it better.

Right now I've got two active writing projects.

1. Constance and the Sum of All Things. This is the first book in a Superhero Urban Fantasy trilogy. An introverted twelve-year old has to save her broken family from a haunted house and a serial killer stalking them for a madman's secret that will end the world.

2. Quiz Funnel Superstars. An online course for creatives, freelancers and small business owners on how to use quizzes and forms to build subscribers and sales.

Working on genre fiction and non-fiction marketing education makes writing these emails tricky. Are you here because you like superheroes, urban fantasy, a behind the scenes look at writing, or maybe want to know more about digital marketing or building online courses?

The smart thing for me to do would be split everything into three or four separate email lists each with their own brand and identity. I'm not going to do that because separate lists would multiply my workload, take time away from active projects and reduce the odds of me getting this email out every Sunday. Instead, you're getting this weekly email with a bit of everything.

Every Sunday

Without fail.

This lack of niche separation does let me talk about how writing a novel, a course, a short story or a piece of advertising copy is the same process using the three same tools.


Everything starts for me in a notebook. I stay away from technology as much as possible in the brainstorming stage because I allow it to be a distraction that kills ideas. Instead, I work inside a single notebook using a variation of the bullet journal system to keep my notes organised.

My notebook is where I keep a journal, marginalia for whatever I'm reading, pitches for novels, a problem I can solve with a course, an outline of short story, or the first draft of what to write in this email each week.

I've made life easier for everyone around me for my birthday and Christmas with a standing order for ruled, bound, hard cover notebooks with good quality paper (at least 80gsm if you're digging for detail) or Arteza black gel pen refills.


When something goes beyond an idea, and there is no set rule for when that is, I move it over into Scapple, a mind-mapping tool. Scapple is where I break down a messy idea into individual units, move them around, clean them up and give them some structure but more importantly see if they flow.

Quiz Funnel Superstars Curriculum Design in Scapple

I've learned to spend a lot of time in Scapple taking fragments and joining them together until they make sense. If I rush mapping out an idea, outlining what I want it to be, I'll pay for it later by staring at a blank screen not knowing what write next.


When I have the plan I'll sit down to write the first draft in Scrivener. Scrivener is a word-processing program that includes an outliner feature.

I copy the modules and lessons from a course map or the chapters and scenes from a novel plan into the outliner in Scrivener. This is a big deal for me because instead of trying to hold an entire course or book in my head I can focus on writing individual lessons and scenes before connecting them into a flowing narrative.

First Draft

If I've invested the time in my notebook and mind map planning writing I'll typically write a few thousand words a day on a first draft. As I write I'll move away from the plan if it's the right thing to do. That's OK because sometimes there are things I don't know need to be included until I'm writing.

I don't change the mind map, but I will make a note in Scrivener that I've gone outside the outline along with the reason why. When I've finished the first draft this takes all the guesswork out of the self-editing phase, but that's a whole other process that isn't as good as I want it to be.


It took me a long time to figure out this 3-step process is the best way for me to write a good quality first draft of anything. Along the way I looked for shortcuts, better ways of doing things, and so many pieces of software in an attempt to do what I do with less effort.

Truth is it's the effort around creation that makes my first drafts any good. There's no shortcut for that, not for me anyway. Having a writing routine using software I know frees up time and mental cycles for more writing and less stress.

This isn't a prescription on how to write first drafts. Ask 10 writers, of any description, about their first draft process, and you'll get 11 different answers. If there's a takeaway from this it's take what you do, find the simplest way of doing it, and ignore shiny things that promise to do it better.

Took me waaaaaaay to long to learn that.

Copyright © Stephen Gordon 2021