How to write better first drafts of your stories

Editors love this trick!

(Illustration by Matt Lubchansky)

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With that out of the way …

On a panel last weekend, a common question came in: What can writers do to improve their first drafts?

What a great question! We all want to know the secret to turning in pristine, error-free copy. Sure, you could have three different friends offer notes before you file, or rewrite your story 20 times. But the truth is, your first drafts are never going to be perfect, and your editor doesn’t expect them to be. Whenever you’re self-editing, you reach a point where you’re no longer making improvements, you’re just making changes. Done is better than perfect.

And that’s fine! That’s part of the process! That’s why editors exist. This is true of a student journalist working toward their first byline, and of veterans who have been in the industry for decades. Even Taffy Brodesser-Akner, widely recognized as one of the greatest working writers, can take up to nine drafts for a story. Iteration is built into the process.

That said: There is something you can do to ensure you’re filing the best version of a first draft you can. And it’s much simpler than you might think.

The secret? No surprises.

Yes, it’s that simple. The best thing you can do to improve your first drafts is to meet expectations and make sure your editor isn’t surprised by anything in your copy.

Here’s what I mean.

Ideally when you work with an editor — though, admittedly, not always — you’ve agreed, at least in big-picture terms, on the structure, organization, framing, sourcing and tone of your story. To file a strong first draft, just follow through on what you and your editor agreed on for how the story should look and feel. Go through your notes and emails with your editor from when you first started talking about how to build this story, and do a quick check of whether you’ve delivered on what you’ve discussed. 

Is your story structured the way you agreed it should be? Does your sourcing look how you said it would? Did you organize it the way you said you would? Are you in the right word count range? Revisiting all of this will save you and your editor time in covering the basics of your story, because you’ve covered the baseline of what the story needs. Once you’ve satisfied all of that, your editor can offer you notes on how to make your story sing.

The “no surprises” rule is a bedrock principle of journalism when it comes to stories in general: The subjects of your story should not be surprised by what’s in it, broadly speaking. “Fairness also means adhering to the ‘no surprises’ rule when writing critically of someone: affording the source the opportunity to answer allegations or criticisms before publishing the work,” according to the N.Y.U. Journalism Handbook for Students. But applying that same rule to your relationship with your editor is going to save you so, so much time in the long-run — and make your first drafts so much stronger.

So don’t be surprised when it gets you on an editor’s regulars roster.


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Oh, a few other things …

• There are still many spots left in our free August Zoom panels, which happen twice every Sunday! Topics this month include the business of freelancing, writing the perfect pitch, how to write a book, how to launch a newsletter and more. Click here to register.

• Has a New York City-based organization ever withheld payment from you? The writer Erin Van Der Meer put together this excellent thread on what to do if it happens to you.

• FWT is now on Instagram! Follow us here. There’s gonna be sooooo much great video stuff there very soon!

• As always, send questions, comments, thoughts, cute pet photos or anything else to freelancingwithtim@gmail.com, and follow me on Twitter for updates throughout the week.

Okay bye ily!
-Tim ❤️