The Zero Draft

Some time in the summer of 2019, I came across Kate Cavanaugh on YouTube. She's a writer and someone whom I consider to be a huge part of the Authortube side of YouTube, something I've always stayed on the edge of. After watching tons of her videos and hearing her talk about the Zero Draft, I decided that it was something I could adopt to help me better understand my writing process and the drafts I've already written.

The idea of the Zero Draft is that it's the "trash" draft. Okay, not really. Sort of. Other people are more eloquent about it. Personally, I like to think of it as the "word vomit" draft that's very reminiscent of how I write during NaNoWriMo. No editing, minimal to no thinking, and a focus on getting the story out first.

Because I've never really drafted something outside of NaNoWriMo events, I really suck at Zero Drafting when it's not November. It's a small problem getting into the mindset of writing a Zero Draft when I don't have the confines of 30 days to push me to write as quickly as I can.

But the general idea of the Zero Draft is something that I think is wonderful. It's the draft before the First Draft. It's the thing that gives me permission to write terribly so I can get the story onto the page. And it's perfect for writers like me who struggle with feeling like the first draft is never good enough.

Of course, not every writer needs the Zero Draft. Some writers are just talented enough to write the first draft and have it be good enough that they can just start polishing the story without having to do major re-writes. There are also the in-between writers who scrap scenes but are able to keep the same structure. Personally, I tend to need the Zero Draft.

The way I look at it, the Zero Draft is everything before the novel is ready to go through edits like additional character development, plot development, fixing nuances, working on description, etc. It's the mess before the story really looks and feels like it could be a story.

Save the Cat, a book I recently finished about the craft of writing, refers to this as a "discovery draft." The process in which the writer gets to know the characters, the world, how things work, and the very beginnings of what will eventually become a polished story. While the names are different, the concept is the same.

Why do I bring all of this up? Because I think that this term isn't used enough. I think it's helpful for writers like me to have a word to describe the state our novels are in before they're really a first draft. And it's important because sometimes, despite having written a full novel, it doesn't feel like it's actually a first draft yet. Sometimes, that draft is so messy and needs so much fixing and re-writing that it's barely even a draft. Sometimes "First Draft" is too scary and daunting of a name to call something that doesn't even feel like it's complete yet.

All this is really to say that I think there's something really comforting in finding out about the Zero Draft. It's been really nice for me, especially working on Project GHOST right now. The first four chapters were written with in the style of a First Draft because I was doing it for a grade as one of my senior projects, but the rest of the story is going to be a Zero Draft. I've been feeling this insane pressure to live up to those first four chapters, which honestly, are probably going to undergo a ton of re-writes. But reminding myself that I have the freedom of the Zero Draft helps me work toward finish the draft, something I talked about in a previous blog post.

Even if this doesn't apply to the draft you're working on now, it might be something to keep in mind when a future draft just isn't turning out the way you want it to.

How do you usually approach drafting a story?

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  • Mel Loke says:

    Love this! I've never heard the term before, but the concept is useful and should be used more widely for sure. Great stuff 🙂