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The Zero Draft

February 5, 2013 by Kiersi

I really owe credit to my partner-in-brainstorming Eddy over at Eddy Writes (an awesome blog, if you haven’t already been) for the term zero draft. He coined it after I refused to show him my first run-through of my NaNoWriMo novel, Gryphon.

I refused because I wanted to take some time away from the novel and perform a revision before sending it to anyone. Why? A NaNoWriMo novel, by its very definition, is written over the course of a single month–and most of that time, you’re encouraged “not to look back”: just keep writing. Don’t stop. Don’t turn around and re-read and fix and obsess. Just keep writing.

For me, this bizarre pace results in a draft that is both fluid and cohesive, but also a total freaking wreck. Like, I would not even show this thing to a third grader, not to mention a critique partner that I actually respect. I refuse to even really call it a draft. Or even a manuscript.

Thus: zero draft. Not quite version 1, not quite out of beta; completed, but still in the incubation stage.

I was pretty happy with Gryphon when I finished it–you know that elated, “I am the Queen of the goddamned world!” feeling you get when you complete a big project. Upon revision, however, I am thrilled that I didn’t send this mess to anyone! Instead, I saved the file, closed it, and stepped away for a month. For me, that’s usually enough time to forget how every piece of the story unfolds; enough time that it can sit and simmer in the back of my hard drive until I’ve cleared some other things off my plate and am ready to revisit it.

At the point of “zero draft,” there’s really no reason for me to show the manuscript to anyone. All I have to do is put some space between it and me, come back later, and I’ll be able to catch a lot of the glaring errors that a critique partner would find (and probably laugh at me for).

I like to think of it as saving myself and saving my critique partner time. Why give them a draft I know contains major problems? Why not solve what I can solve just by letting it hang out on the backburner for a while, and then give it to my partner, when their feedback will actually be helpful and useful to me?

Obviously, not everyone works this way. Some writers like to show a critique partner a work in progress to get feedback on how to continue, or just for encouragement. But for Gryphon, the challenge of NaNoWriMo (writing a book in one month) and the vastly supportive NaNo community handled that whole part for me.

And frankly, I am so happy with the zero draft method, I’ll probably do all my manuscripts this way from now on. I’ll be the first to admit it’s just better for my ego to hand someone a more polished piece of work, and not have to suffer through being called out on mistakes I could have–and probably should have fixed–before I even hit SEND.

Related post: The Art of Story Fermentation


  1. M. Ziegler says:

    Love it! That is the perfect term “Zero Draft.” Good luck getting it done.

  2. I think I’d almost have to call my planning “zero draft” because my planning is so thorough. I’ve been known to write out entire scenes in the planning. Yes, I’m crazy. 😉 The good part is that since I put so much into my planning, my first draft is never a complete mess. Of course I always need to revise several times, but I’m never pulling my hair out over it.

    • Kiersi says:

      You are crazy! Hahaha. I do a similar thing when I’m working in Scrivener. I outline most scenes and then write dialogue if it’s in my head, or the whole thing if it’s ready. Your process is so interesting!

  3. Eddy says:

    Trying to write a zero draft right now and it’s crazy how quickly I forget my own advice. I know I need to keep my head down, never look back and charge ahead, but for the first few days it’s a tug-of-war with that part of my brain. Thanks for the post and the mention! Really needed the pick-me-up.

  4. Quanie Mitchell says:

    Agreed! I have a draft of my recent project that is so bad that I would deny writing it. It’s also important to remember that it’s okay for that zero draft to be crappy (sometimes you have to write crap to get to the good stuff or even figure out what it is you’re trying to say).

    • Kiersi says:

      So true and absolutely! I definitely need a once-through of a story first to even have a clue who my characters are. As much pre-planning as I TRY to do, it doesn’t compare to actually writing a first (or zero) draft.

  5. Janel says:

    I love this term! I think I will use it as a Scrivener label on my very messy, not for public consumption first drafts. I’ve been working at writing cleaner first drafts, but I’m not yet at the point that I am comfortable with anybody else seeing them.

    • Kiersi says:

      A Scrivenerian, too? Well, you’re in good company here, Janel! Frankly, I’m not even bothered anymore by messy first drafts (or zero drafts). So much of writing for me has been learning to be OK with imperfection, and just make it better on the next round. Glad this term is helpful to you, too! 😉

  6. I agree. It doesn’t make sense to me to share our work with others until we’ve done all the heavy lifting ourself and have whipped it into as best shape as we know how. Then get some input.

    Unless, of course, we’re trying to get some encouragement and just see if we’re on the right track, andn if this is something that will resonate with others. Looking for validation, really. That we’re not totally wasting out time on this.

    But I’m wondering about that first reading. If our critique partner shouldn’ read it through without making any comments, or even thinking about editing, but just trying to enjoy it, see how it flows, and make the first feedback on whether or not they enjoyed it, believed it, found it compelling, etc.

    I’m finding that when I critique others’ work with pen in hand, I’m approaching from the standpoint of “fixing” it, rather than enjoying it. I’m breaking the flow. So I start making recommendations that maybe I wouldn’t have if I’d read the whole thing all the way through first. And I find others doing that to me too.

    Any advise here? What do you and your critique partner do?

    • Kiersi says:

      You bring up a really good point. On my first couple of manuscripts, I found it really helpful to show it to someone I trusted, someone who could read the work even only partially-completed and brainstorm with me the next few steps.

      I think it still depends on the manuscript, but I do a better job now of pre-planning and outlining so that I know exactly where the book is going each step of the way. I need less outside encouragement. However, I still have projects (like short stories) where getting that feedback from a critique partner is essential to moving forward.

      And you’re absolutely right about sometimes, you (or your partner) just needs to read the work through once without making any comments, to get the pace and flow and structure. I do that with my own work in later drafts, instead of earlier ones, but I think it depends on what works for you.

      Eddy lets me show things to him at any stage. Thus is the blessing of a great critique partner!

      Good luck, Deborah 😀

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