Fast-Drafting & Hitting Word Count Goals
Fast-drafting is an incredible tool for making quick progress on a writing project, whether you’re spending a whole month in maximum speed-writing mode for NaNoWriMo, or you’re just trying to bash out a couple chapters of a new draft when you have a free weekend.
Some people refer to this process as ‘garbage-drafting’ or ‘zero-drafting.’ Whatever you call it, the point of fast-drafting is to get as many words as you can onto the page. The goal is to help characters, arcs and plotlines take shape, and get your big-picture ideas flowing, without worrying about the fine details.
I fast-drafted when I started both of my most recent manuscripts. I set myself a specific daily goal for word count, and a timeframe for hitting my overall goal. Participating in a group writing event like NaNo gives you a pre-set timeframe -- and some cool graphs to measure your progress -- but you can equally set out on your own solo fast-drafting mission anytime, anywhere!
These are my top three tips for successfully fast-drafting with a word count goal!
1. START WITH A SCENE MAP.
Some people use an outline or a chronological chapter list, but I prefer to call mine a scene map, because I write non-linear stories and I usually don’t know what order the scenes will go in until later. Mine are more of a series of loosely-connected dots on a page. But whether you have a really detailed outline or just a nebulous story idea, you can do this: start your project by making a list of key scenes and character moments that you know will appear somewhere in the book.
For a month-long drafting event like NaNo, I try to write down at least 15-20 bullet points on my scene map ahead of time, each describing a key moment that I know is going to be in there -- even if I don’t know exactly how it will relate to the rest. This could be as simple as Character X and Y meet for the first time, or Character Z explores the ship in secret.
Each day when I sit down to write, I look at the list and decide what’s drawing me in. Maybe I’m feeling connected to a particular character’s voice that day, so I’ll look for a scene that could have some intense dialogue for them. Or maybe I had a good idea about how to describe a particular setting or technology, so I’ll look for a scene that could incorporate that. Not every writing day is the same, so if a piece of the story isn’t working today, switching gears to a different kind of scene can help you get un-stuck.
2. DO NOT LOOK BACK. EVER.
When I do NaNoWriMo, I start my writing sprint each day in a fresh document, labelled like NaNo_Day4. I never look back on what I wrote the previous day, and I often start in an entirely different place than where I left off. (Occasionally, if I do two writing sessions in the same day, I might continue on the same document, but never the next day!)
The idea of writing out of order makes some people twitch, but even if you prefer to follow a detailed chronological chapter outline and take note of exactly where you left off, you can still use this method. Don’t open yesterday’s document. Start each day/session on a fresh page, and forget about how yesterday went. Reading what you’ve already written will inevitably lead to self-editing or second-guessing yourself, and the goal of fast-drafting is only to get words on the page, not to ‘fix’ anything! Just keep going, even if your scenes don’t line up or you change your mind about something.
Writing out of order does mean that at the end of the endeavour, I’ve often written overlapping parts of the the same scene, or I’ve written the same conversation two different ways. But comparing two versions of a scene is also a helpful tool. What parts of the scene or setting stayed the same? What part of a character’s reaction or dialogue was similar, even when I attempted the same scene again a week later? Looking at two versions helps me get the sense of what beats are holding a chapter together, and helps me figure out what the emotional core of a scene should be.
3. EVERYTHING YOU WRITE COUNTS AS DRAFTING.
You do not have to write full paragraphs of prose every day to achieve your word count goal. If you ask me, you should always count absolutely everything you wrote that relates to your project, not just the pretty sentences that worked. You don’t have to give up on hitting your word count for the day just because you’re feeling uninspired or you don’t have a lot of time.
I have a whole arsenal of little tricks I use to meet my daily word count when the words aren’t flowing. Sometimes, I just write a stream-of-consciousness bullet-pointed list of things that might work for a specific plot point. Sometimes I write a list of locations in the book and vague descriptions of them, what might be found there, what might need to be described -- things I can add to my scene map. And yes, I count all those words toward my drafting goal.
Another thing I do is pull a random emotion (frustration, fear, annoyance, etc.) and write one or two sentences for each main character, describing them reacting to that emotion with no other context.
She stayed outwardly calm, her voice quiet and steady as she delivered the news. But she balled her fist beneath the desk, clenching and unclenching her hand until her sharply-pointed nails had left deep indentations in her palm.
I might not have any clue where I’m going to use that, or if it will even make it into the book. But every word that gets written, whether it’s discarded later or not, is a part of the process. There were days during NaNo when all I wrote was a long page of lines like that. Hundreds of my NaNo words were unrelated single sentences or paragraphs, all of which were helping me flesh out a new group of characters and settings. Not only did those words all count, but when I read back on them later, many of them could serve as starting points for new scenes in the next draft.
Realistically, you’re going to delete more words from your first/zero-drafts than will ever make it into the final version. But everything you’re doing now -- from worldbuilding to experimental musing to getting to know your characters -- is part of the work of drafting, and should be counted.
So there you go, my top tips for a successful NaNo or fast-drafting sprint! You can use these methods whether you intend to draft intensely for a whole month or you just have a weekend to work on a messy new story idea :)