Write It As Fast As You Can

How to Write a Better Rough Draft According to Top Science Fiction Authors

by Jack Windeyer

painting of a starship traveling at full speed
Image copyright Vincent Di Fate

Many top science fiction writers use the same technique to produce rough drafts. It’s not some big secret or a thousand-step, alchemical recipe. In fact, their advice is surprisingly simple: write until it’s done.

Writing a story for me is usually a one sitting thing. I don't like to let stories drag out; I find that you break the continuity of it. There's a mood you build for each story, a kind of poetic flow, in fact, where you go from sentence to sentence, line to line, paragraph to paragraph, and that, if you have a big break, it's like a hairline fracture in the story. So I try to do everything I write in one sitting. It's sometimes impossible but I try. I can write a four, five, six thousand word short story in a day and a half. But that's solid work. I don't even break for anything. I don't eat.

—Harlan Ellison

Ellison calls it a mood, this effect that you risk losing if you take too long to write your short story. Asimov called it harmony:

You know [bad writing] is bad because you hear the discords, not because you've parsed the sentences. That means that you can hear the harmony, too, so just sit down and write... let the whole thing flow out and then, and only then, look it over and make your improvements.

—Isaac Asimov (from How to Enjoy Writing)

Writing a single draft to conclusion keeps the story cohesive. It forces you to focus on the main through-line of the plot—a constraint, and the great paradox of creativity is that it feeds on constraints. The fewer variables you need to hold in your mind at any given time, the better.

Many writers—I'm one of them—don't think about aspects of credible prose at all in the first draft. I concentrate on the story the first time through, revisions to the story the second time through, and prose quality in the third draft.

—Nancy Kress (from Beginnings, Middles & Ends)

“Wait one second, Jack,” I hear you saying. “As soon as I finish a first draft, I’m too tempted to send it off right away. I need to revise as I go, or I won’t revise at all!”

You, my friend, are in great company, grand-master company. Just like you, Frederik Pohl struggled to muster enthusiasm for revising his early stories. This is the same Frederik Pohl who maintained a fan blog into his late 80s (not at all relevant to this discussion, but I mean c’mon, what a badass). He explains:

When I first began writing I taught myself to do first drafts only. The trouble with that was that although I got some of it published, it just wasn't any good. Because I have no will power, and can't trust myself to continue to do anything for very long simply because I know that it's right, I had to trick myself into revising, by writing first drafts on the back of correspondence, envelopes, circulars, any typeable surface that I couldn't possibly submit as a manuscript. So I had to rewrite them at least once. Now, I do at least one complete rough draft, and one complete retyping, and I often rewrite sections, some of them over and over again, and then when it's finished I edit it carefully. I spend more time revising than I do writing.

But, what worked for Pohl may not work for you. Which brings up the all- important disclaimer that ought to be attached to any writing advice: experiment!

Alls I’m saying is that this is worth a try. You be the judge.

And more importantly, stop looking for the perfect writing process that you can follow rigidly for the rest of your writing career. Writing techniques and processes aren’t applicable to every type of writing. They should engender no “brand” loyalty (I’m looking at you who call yourself a “plotter” or a “pantser”). Try them all with an eye toward figuring out what kind of writing is best aided by which techniques.

Perhaps an outline can help you write a better idea-driven story, but a story structured as a milieu is better explored without boundaries. Maybe you’ll find it easier to write flash fiction in reverse; an event- driven story, in parts and stitched together.

You are capable of learning many ways of writing, of producing myriad tones and varying structures. So, get going. I believe in you!