Do you have a great idea for a story, but find the writing process a little intimidating? You’re not alone. Committing words to a page can be hard – what if the scenes you have in your head end up being lifeless and flat? Or you can’t find the right words to express your meaningful theme, and instead end up sliding into tiresome didacticism? Or you read it back later and realise the whole thing’s terrible? Sometimes it feels easier not to begin at all.

If you’re having trouble starting to write, a ‘draft zero’ might be a great technique for you. Read on to discover everything you need to know about zero drafting, and how to use it to get words down on the page.

What is a draft zero’?

I’m defining a draft zero, sometimes called a zero draft or zero drafting, as a pre-writing exercise that involves summarising a novel from start to finish. It works by taking all of your ideas and putting them into a structured order that tells a complete story.

A draft zero lets you see the overall shape of the plot so you can make it as strong and cohesive as possible before you begin your real first draft. It can be anywhere from roughly 1,000 to 30,000 words, and as broad or detailed as you like. The goal is to create a step-by-step map of the novel to guide you through the writing journey.

Why is zero drafting a useful step in the writing process?

There are several reasons why a draft zero can be helpful for all kinds of writers. Here are some benefits to incorporating this pre-writing exercise into your creative practice.

It frees you from inhibition

Writing is scary. Because… because… what if you do it all wrong, or someone sees it and makes fun of you for your stilted dialogue and one-dimensional characters? Writing a rough draft can feel a bit like attempting photorealism with a crayon in your non-dominant hand, and it’s tempting to just toss it in the bin and watch Netflix instead.

A draft zero takes all of this pressure away. When you write your zero draft, it’s not really writing at all – all you’re doing is telling the story to yourself.

It gives you a broad view of your story

The best thing about zero drafting is that you get to see the entire road map of your plot so that you can catch any wrong turns and speed bumps before you actually begin writing.

Sometimes when we write out a rough draft without any advance planning, we end up getting stuck because we’ve made things too complicated and aren’t sure how to proceed. With a draft zero, you get to see where each plot point leads, what sort of dynamic journey each character undergoes, and where they ultimately end up. This will save you a lot of time and hair-pulling in the long run.

It lets you try things out

When you first conceive a premise for a story, you may have a few ideas about how you want things to go. You may not know if one particular character should live or die, or if you want the two leads to end up together.

During your zero drafting process, you can try sketching out multiple story pathways and seeing which result you like best. This way you can experiment without having to throw away thousands and thousands of words when you decide that an idea isn’t working.

It’s low stakes

Remember – no one is ever going to see this messy zero draft but you. It’s in no way a finished product; it’s simply a tool for you to use as you find your way into a story. This means that you can make all the mistakes you want and try out ridiculous scenarios just to see the effect.

Writing a zero draft can be a great reminder that creative writing can (and should!) be fun. This is a chance to pull out your childhood wonder and explore the potential of what your story can be.

Should you outline a draft zero?

Zero drafting is a great complement to novel outlining. The good news is you can do it in either order: create a novel outline and then build a draft zero around it, or write your draft zero first and then ‘reverse outline’ with what you’ve created.

To create a draft zero from a novel outline, start by using a proven story framework like the three-act structure, the five-act structure, or Freytag’s pyramid to build your beginning, middle, and end. For some ideas, be sure to check out our free, foolproof novel outline template!

Then, you can use this outline as the bare bones of your draft zero.

To reverse outline, write your draft zero first until you’re happy with how it looks. Next, superimpose it on top of one of the story structures we looked at above. Ask yourself: Does my draft zero have all the necessary structural components? An inciting incident? Compelling rising action? A midpoint hinge? An explosive climax?

Line up the events of your story until they fit the pattern of a cohesive plot. If any plot points are missing, too spread out, or jammed too close together, you can adjust and fill in the blanks until you have a perfect narrative structure.

How to start writing your draft zero

You know that old adage, ‘Show, don’t tell’? It’s great advice, but it can wait. A zero draft is basically ‘telling’ the entire story as simply and concisely as possible. This means you don’t have to worry about beautiful prose or perfect pacing; instead of describing a tense, thrilling fight scene, you can simply say ‘The friends ride into battle. One of them dies [maybe the brother? TBC]. The villain is wounded and escapes through a portal. Everybody retreats to heal.’

If you can visualise any scenes in your head or hear any lines of witty banter, go ahead and write those down. Elsewise, just describe what happens as best you can. As noted above, you don’t have to know everything right away. You can leave questions for yourself to fill in later when you have a better idea of the whole story. This keeps you moving forward instead of getting stuck on the details.

The goal of a draft zero is to create the raw material of a story so that you have something to work with. Then, you can take the loose narrative sand and start building sandcastles.

Fija Callaghan is an author, poet, and unapologetic daydreamer. Her work has been shortlisted and longlisted for a number of short story prizes, and you can find her writing in publications like Gingerbread House, Crow & Cross Keys, Corvid Queen, and Mythic Magazine. When not writing or helping other writers get the best out of their work, she can be found haunting her local bookshops or watching the tide come in.

Do you write fantasy or science fiction?

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