first draft productivity

Why you shouldn’t worry about first draft formatting

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.

Margaret Atwood

Starting a new writing project is exciting. Perhaps the idea has been stewing in your brain for weeks or months, or maybe it erupted from your head like Athena.

New writing projects come with lots of unanswered questions. Who should the main character be? What are the world’s rules? Should you write in first person, third person, or should you take a more experimental approach?

What about more subtle concerns, like the font size or the formatting? Should you write this project in a format designed for your agent, whether you have one or not? Is it better to plan for a self-published story and to save time now by setting up your document as close to the final formatted version as possible?

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Most writers should consider the first draft as a place to think more about the story and less about the presentation. Develop your character, your setting, your plot, and give yourself all sorts of room to explore your new world. Forget about page margins and font sizes for now.

Do whatever helps you finish

Try to remember that the first draft does not have to be perfect. The first draft is a place for you to experiment. Focus on getting words on the page, and don’t lose track of the fact that you’ll be coming back to this story in the future. Everything can change, including the formatting.

Do whatever helps you finish the draft. Focusing on anything else isn’t helping you get this story closer to completion.

All rules have exceptions, of course, and you may truly feel that a lack of formatting will impact your writing. In that case, spending time on your layout will help you finish, and you should do it. As with any first draft, don’t feel that these changes are binding! You can always update the formatting later, just as you can change your story in a future edit.

Pass off work to future-you

There’s a version of you somewhere in the future that’s holding a completed first draft in their hands. How exciting is that? And you know what? That future-you is ready to tackle some of the work you saved for them. You took the hard job–writing an entire draft!–and set them up to hunt for the gold. That version of you has some editing work, and some re-writing. That version of you probably won’t care too much about formatting yet, but they might start to think about it. They’re a lot closer to those kinds of concerns than present-you!

There’s also another version of you a little farther ahead in the future with a final draft. That version of you is asking questions, such as whether to submit to an agent, or to self-publish. The answers to those questions will involve making some large formatting changes to the draft. What’s important to note is that those are questions for future-you, and not for present-you. You have to do the writing work to get future-you a final draft. That should be your focus.

Set future-you up for success

There are a few quick tips you can keep in mind, especially if you’re finding it hard to ignore the formatting and page layout.

Keep your story sections mobile enough to be moved around. For some people, this means keeping separate Word documents for each chapter. If you’re using Scrivener, you can use the note card feature to slide chapters around without any effort. Wait until you are fairly sure there won’t be too many more edits before consolidating everything into a single file.

Changing formatting later in Word is easy. For example, you can easily move between double-spacing and single-spacing, which will be important if you’re preparing to do some editing work or agent submission. Double-spacing the document will be helpful for you. Single-spacing will be important when you’re closer to the finish line. Regardless of where you are in the process, these are easy changes to make, and you won’t need to stress out early.

Whatever you do while writing your first draft, remember that your goal is to produce words. Anything that gets in the way of that process should be banished, or at least cast forward to future-you.

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