Your first draft should be merely that. Your instructor may require that you turn in several drafts; even if you are not required to do so, however, make a habit of writing at least two or three drafts. Rereading and rewriting are closely related, mutually reinforcing processes. Whenever you reread a draft, you are likely to discover a word, phrase, or idea that can be better staled. Whenever you rewrite, you come up with words and ideas you may not have thought about before. This combination of rereading and rewriting can only improve your compositions. Moreover, if you think of drafting as “writing the paper,” rather than as a step preliminary to revising, you might find yourself facing writers block because you have made the draft seem too important.
As noted earlier, some kinds of writing do not include a thesis. Careful assessment of your rhetorical situation will guide you in deciding whether a thesis is called for. But thesis or no thesis, if a clear purpose is not evident in your writing, your reader will be confused or bored or both. If you have not started out with a clear purpose, writing your first draft should force you to find one. Some writers write a speedy “discovery draft” for the sole purpose of finding out what they have to say before they give any thought to organization and methods of development.
Different writers follow different processes, but most focus in the drafting stage on large-scale, or fundamental, matters of purpose, thesis, and overall structure, leaving issues of style and correctness for the revising, editing, and proofreading stages. As you begin your first draft, remind yourself that you are beginning a version of your writing project that no one else will read. Write quickly. If a good opening does not come immediately, don’t worry. Start with the section that seems easiest to you; your reader will not know or care that you wrote the middle of the essay first. Likewise, don’t worry at this stage about writing your conclusion. It will be very difficult to develop until you know what you will say in the rest of the paper. Finally, don’t worry about transitions unless they come easily. And don’t try to polish or revise before you have finished at least one complete draft. Concentrate on ideas during the drafting stage.
Stop writing before you are completely exhausted. If you need to stop before you finish a draft, you might try Ernest Hemingway’s trick of stopping in the middle of a sentence you will know how to complete when you come back. Before you resume writing, reread what you have written; often, seeing what you have written will trigger the frame of mind that was productive.
If you began your assignment by prewriting on a word processor, you have a head start on the drafting process. Sit down at the computer, open your file, and start writing where you left off. All the advantages of prewriting at the keyboard—speed, clarity, efficiency—apply here too. But there is more. Once you have finished your draft, you have a fully formatted document. There is no need to worry again about margins, spacing, or pagination once you have set them up correctly. If your instructor requires multiple drafts or copies for class workshops, you will be ready. More important, if your textbook or instructor offers suggestions for developing or organizing your ideas, if you finally decide how to write that introduction, or if you suddenly realize that some paragraphs need transitions or topic sentences, you don’t need to start over. Just put the cursor at the point where you want to expand, and start writing. Highlight an extraneous paragraph, and hit “delete.”
Of course, you might change your mind about these additions and omissions. For that reason, it makes sense to save each draft during the composing process so you can return to an earlier version if you want to copy a paragraph and add it to your latest attempt. It is also a good idea to print out a hard copy of each draft. Revising is easier when you have the entire text in front of you, and a paper copy is a lifesaver if your disk gets damaged or your hard drive crashes. Keep these potential disasters in mind whenever you compose at the keyboard. Save changes often, and make backup copies of everything on a floppy disk.