creative writing

How to Write a Zero Draft & My Experience

Hello everyone!

The concept of zero draft was new to me and I couldn’t wait to give it a try during NaNoWriMo last year. I want to share my experience zero-drafting a novel!

What’s a Zero Draft?

We’ve all heard about first drafts, but have you heard about zero drafts?

A zero draft is a super-rough draft that’s meant to be torn apart and almost completely rewritten later. It captures the essence of your novel without fillers and windy descriptions. You may choose to use placeholders like [insert description of house here] and [scene transition here], and instead focus on capturing important pieces of plot and dialogue. The goal of writing a zero draft is to just get it done.

You can go into writing a zero draft with as much or as little preparation as you’d like. Prior to starting, you can pre-write an outline and character sheets, but you don’t need these if you don’t want to. When writing the zero draft, you can spend as much time as you want and you can skip around as necessary.

How was my experience with zero drafts?

I started my first zero draft during NaNoWriMo last year for my new MG paranormal novel, Vampires Don’t Drink Blood. I happened serendipitously that I didn’t get a chance to plan this novel to the extent that I would’ve liked to, and I went into the zero draft with a rough and bare-bones outline and almost NO research and world building.

What I Liked

The plot, characters and world building evolved organically.

The characters, world building, and plot came to me as I was writing, and I modified the outline and added to my world building sheets as I went along. It actually worked really well.

I also realized that I always dreaded spending long hours on research and world building during the outlining stage. Instead, I liked this process of doing them as I went along much better.

It was efficient.

For my recent novels, I did a lot of planning and outlining beforehand… The problem was that I had trouble sticking to my plans. My characters wouldn’t “obey” the personalities I assigned to them and ended up doing their own thing. My plot and world also changed along the way. After completing the first draft, I often felt that I wasted a lot of time planning when I didn’t use everything I planned.

With the zero draft, I added to my plot and the world as I went along, so I didn’t need to do this twice.

I get to the second half of my novel earlier.

The problem I always had with my outlines was that I knew 90% of what would happen in the first half of the novel, and 10% of what would happen in the second half of the novel. Even if I tried to figure out the second half at the plotting stage, I would probably not follow this part of the outline by the time I got to it.

I liked having the permission to not have a clue about what happens in the second half, then get to it when I get to it. Usually this means that I’d go back and revise part of the first half to match the second half, but at least it all came together.

It’s about the bigger picture

Even writing the first draft, I’ve always deliberated over word choices and spent a long time on scene descriptions… only to edit them out in a later draft. While I was working on this zero draft, it felt great to give myself permission to not fret about these details and move on.

Every word counts

Yes, the zero draft is meant to be rewritten later. However, I felt that each word, sentence and paragraph actually carried greater weight, since I spent less time writing filler content, more time writing actual scenes that matter.

It was liberating

I told myself “I’m not showing this to anyone until I go through this again with a fine-tooth comb when it’s all done,” and it took away the pressure to get things perfectly on the first go.

What I Didn’t Like

It felt incomplete

I’m used to writing from beginning to end and knowing that I can type “THE END” on a completed draft at the end of the novel. But with the zero draft, scenes and chapters never felt complete since I jumped around and used placeholders here and there. I had to remind myself that the key points of the story are all there.

I was slower

Since sometimes I didn’t have a clue what I was writing and I was often derailed to re-visit my outline or world building, it took a longer time to actually add to the word count of the novel.

It was hard

I still caught myself spending a long time trying to describe the exact way someone said something or how an old house looked. It was hard to let go of the details.

It took longer than expected

I thought that zero draft equals fewer words equals a quicker draft. I also heard of people finishing zero drafts in a few days. However, it didn’t pan out that way for me.

In fact, because I didn’t have a detailed outline or a list of scenes to fall back on, and because I vowed to not write any filler scenes, I often had to pause and think about what to write next. Sooo it actually took longer to write the completed draft at 43K words.

That being said, because I couldn’t completely let go of describing everything and writing a scene to completion, I might have written a more detailed zero draft than necessary!

I panicked a few times

At around the halfway-mark, I had a panic moment because I had no idea where the story was going and I lost confidence in my story and my writing.

Then again, I think this happens with every single novel, even when I try to plot it to death, LOL.

My Final Thoughts

A zero draft is kinda similar to writing a very rough first draft, or a very detailed outline. So in fact, it’s not very different from writing processes that we already know.

That being said, I loved that the zero draft challenged me to rethink my writing process. For the past few years, I’ve been planning more and more for each novel, to the extent that I thought I was meant to be a plotter. Writing a zero draft with little preparation really brought out the pantser in me.

Would I write a zero draft again? Absolutely YES. I loved being able to dive into a story with a fresh mind without getting through the research and world building trenches first.

What was your process for writing a novel? Have you tried zero-drafting?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

33 thoughts on “How to Write a Zero Draft & My Experience

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience with writing a zero draft! I hadn’t actually heard of it, but I think I might try it in the future. I don’t outline, because I get bored having to then write the whole thing again in detail, but maybe I could do this and then fill in the non-essential stuff later. That might work for me!

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    1. Hi Kat! I think the zero draft works well for pantsers, if that’s up your alley! Hope that this method is helpful for you 🙂 It definitely helped me to rethink my own writing process.

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  2. Yes, love this! I didn’t know it was called a “zero draft” but I do this almost all the time with my writing. I always get a “big picture” first and details later, so for me this is a more fun and energizing way to work and get my ideas on paper. Thanks for sharing about your experience 🙂

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    1. Hi Melissa! Sounds like you’ve stumbled upon the zero draft on your own 🙂 It’s probably most efficient this way, since you get the big picture ideas down before tweaking the small stuff. I think I’m still not used to this method though–it’s so hard for me to skip around and use placeholders haha.

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  3. Wow Sophie, thank you for introducing this concept to me! I’ve never heard of a zero draft before but I like the gist of it. I tend to get so wrapped up in the details when I’m writing, and, like you, I always have issues with the second half of the book. The planning and research beforehand is tiring too and very consuming that it sort of takes the fun out of writing a book. But I like the idea of researching as you go. It gives more room for your imagination ❤ I think I may try this with my current WIP or at the very least my next one!

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    1. Hi Jai Lynn! Yes delving too deep into planning and research tires me out sometimes, so it felt really refreshing to not do that before starting this novel and just let ideas come to me as I’m writing. I love that this method helped me rethink my writing process. Hope that you’ll find it helpful too 🙂

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  4. As someone who fusses over every word as I write, I like this idea. It sounds almost like getting an outline done and getting the big structure without getting stuck on details. The downside is that it sounds like an outline, and I’d still have to know where my story is going! (And, you know, I think the *ideas* for a book are often the hardest part, not necessarily writing them down.)

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    1. Hi Briana! I know exactly what you mean, since the zero draft is basically a detailed outline haha. I do find that it’s hard to know where I’m going with the story unless I’m writing down some details, which I think is one of the limitations of this method (at least for me!)

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  5. Thank you for sharing your experience Sophie! I’m a big planner, and actually like planning better than actually writing my book 😳 or maybe that’s just because I’m so worried about planning every single detail that I never feel ready enough to actually start writing.
    I’ve never tried a zero draft before because, for some reason, it always felt a bit intimidating, but you made some great points when you talked about the pros of it, so I just might give it a try this November.

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    1. Hi Juli! Hope that you’ll find this method helpful even if you are a planner 🙂 Even though I’m not sure if I’ll continue to use the zero draft method, it definitely made me learn more about my writing process.

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  6. Interesting. Never heard of draft zero. Writing [add a description here] or something like that seems to me to be a waste of time unless you’re really uninspired. Since I’m mostly a pantser, my first draft is just word vomit mostly. It’s rough, but I still consider it a first draft. Writing something to call it ZERO is just plain demotivating to me. But I’m glad you were able to benefit from it.

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    1. Hi Goldie, I think you bring up a good point. Even though I tried using placeholders while drafting, I didn’t find it too helpful unless I’m really stuck haha. I’m not sure if I would write a “zero” draft again but I learned a few things about my writing process, and I liked that it challenged me to pants more than plan 🙂

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  7. I had no idea that the concept of a “zero draft” even existed before this post, and it’s really interesting to read about your experience with it and how it challenged you to rethink your writing. I feel like this sort of method would suit the pantser really well.

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  8. What an interesting post Sophie, I really enjoyed this! I first learned about the term “zero draft” through Leigh Bardugo, and I loved how comprehensive your pros and cons are, they make so much sense, and I hadn’t thought of several of these before! I might try doing a “zero draft” sometime, as it would be a great way to organically grow the story as you said, but it could seem a little more lacking compared to a “first draft”. Anything to escape the rabbit holes research pulls us into…like I’m fine researching 1, 2, and 3, but when it gets to 30…that’s out of my control at this point 😂

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    1. Hi Eleanor! I tended to plot and research a story to death before feeling like I’m ready to start writing, but giving this zero draft a try really helped me realize what I’m capable of without having to do so much work beforehand 🙂 Hope that you’ll have a good experience with it as well, if you ever give it a try!

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  9. I actually really love the idea of a zero draft! I have the problem of thinking TOO MUCH when I write. It would be nice to just write and not even worry about anything except the ideas. I might try this next time!

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  10. Ah this is such an interesting post, thank you so much for sharing! ❤ I have to say that I've never really tried this out, even though I've been tempted to multiple times. I want to skip something, just leave place holders and move on, but I find myself compelled to go back and unable to leave something too blank, it's…. I don't know, it makes me feel confused, for some reason haha.

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    1. Hi Marie! I actually feel the same way about placeholders haha. I tried using them for this novel, but at some point it just seemed more work to type FRIEND NUMBER 1 instead of a random name like Sue, lol. I think some people really love placeholders and some people don’t, and it’s totally ok to not use them if it doesn’t work for us!

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