One of the biggest hurdles beginning writers have to face is the first draft. They usually have a lot of really bad ideas about what their first draft is supposed to be like and how they are supposed to write it—and these ideas end up keeping them from ever finishing (or even from starting in some cases).
The problem is rarely that Authors don’t know how to express their ideas. Nor is the problem that they don’t know how to write.
The problems tend to arise more with the mindset around writing than with the writing itself.
That’s why we developed the Scribe Method. It addresses and breaks through the mindset issues that hold beginning Authors back, and makes it a lot easier and faster for most people to write a book.
In this post, I will walk you through the best method for writing your first draft (we call it the Vomit Draft Method).
Then, if that is still daunting to you, I will tell you about how to add the Scribe Method on to the Vomit Draft Method, which makes tackling your first draft even easier.
The Vomit Draft Method
Step 1. Give Yourself Permission to Write a Mediocre First Draft
When you sit down to write, you need to do something very simple but very powerful:
Give yourself permission to write a mediocre first draft.
Most beginning authors have this notion that professional writers put out amazing first drafts, or that their first draft has to be really good.
I can tell you, as a professional writer who has written multiple New York Times best-sellers, my first drafts are utter garbage. Worse than mediocre. They’re terrible.
But that doesn’t bother me because I know I can edit them until they aren’t terrible. The famous Barbara Kingsolver quote says it all:
“1. To begin, give yourself permission to write a bad book.
2. Revise until it’s not a bad book.”
The Wonders of the “Vomit Draft”
Many people struggle with giving themselves permission to write a mediocre first draft, so we developed a concept called the “vomit draft.”
We literally call the first draft the “vomit draft.”
That’s because when you’re vomiting, you don’t care about looking beautiful or being elegant. You just want to get it all out—because that’s the only way to get it over with. And the only way to get it all out is to keep going through the pain.
What’s cool about the vomit draft, unlike vomiting in front of people, is that your vomit draft is ONLY for you. You’re the only person who will ever see it. Even your editor won’t see it because you’ll edit it yourself first.
By focusing on just getting it out, you’ll stop reading and editing as you go, which inevitably slows you down (and even stalls you).
When you write something you think is garbage, just say, “That’s a problem for Future Me!” and keep moving.
Step 2. Write Your Vomit Draft Without Stopping To Edit
This might be the most important advice you’ll ever get about writing a first draft, so pay attention:
Write your vomit draft as quickly as possible. Don’t stop. Don’t edit. Move forward without looking back until your vomit draft is done.
Let me repeat that and break it down to be very clear and sure you got it:
Write your vomit draft as quickly as possible.
DO NOT STOP TO READ IT.
DO NOT EDIT.
MOVE FORWARD UNTIL YOUR VOMIT DRAFT IS DONE.
I cannot be more serious or literal about this.
In fact, I want you to say this out loud, right now:
“I will not edit my vomit draft until I am done writing it.”
The quickest way to derail a vomit draft is to start editing before you finish. I don’t care who you are—if you start editing your vomit draft, you WILL get stuck.
If you edit during the vomit draft stage, the best-case scenario is that you’ll double the amount of time it takes you to write the book.
Why Does This Method Work?
Using the Vomit Draft Method does two things:
- It suspends your self-judgment.
- It creates momentum through daily victories (getting 250 words per day and celebrating that adds up and reframes how you see yourself)
If you edit as you write, it totally derails your book. The bully in your brain, the part of you that’s ridiculously hard on yourself, will start to second-guess you and shame you and will, at best, slow you down—if not kill your motivation altogether.
If you think something is terrible and you hate it, that’s fine. Use the “comment” function to highlight it and say, “This is your problem, Future Me,” and then move on. You’ll get to it later.
I’m going to say this again: the vomit draft is for you. NO ONE will ever read it but you.
Once you start editing, that’s when you focus on what people will think. The parts of yourself that want to edit as you go—the perfectionist, the self-critical part—that’s a great editor, but a terrible writer. Put it away until you finish the vomit draft.
Step 3. “Find” Your Voice
For some reason, when the book outline is ready, and it’s time to start writing, many authors become obsessed with “finding their voice.”
I’ll often tease authors and ask them things like, “Hey, did you look behind your sofa? Your voice might be there.”
The joke is silly, but the point is right—you don’t “find” your voice outside yourself. Your voice is already part of who you are. Your job as an author is to get out of the way and let it out.
The second thing authors do wrong is try to mimic someone else’s voice. You can’t be Malcolm Gladwell—you can only be you—so don’t try to be.
So how do you make sure you’re writing in your own natural voice? There are two frames we recommend authors take:
Voice Frame #1: Conversation with a friend
This is the most common mental frame that our authors use. When they sit down to write, they envision themselves talking to a friend.
This is literally the frame I used to write this section—I pretended to explain this to a friend of mine.
Getting in that state of mind does several things:
- It relieves any anxiety because this is just a conversation between friends.
- It helps keep my focus on the listener because they’re a friend, and I want to be attentive to them.
- It helps me stay centered on providing value to the listener because, in a teaching-style conversation, I’m only thinking about what the other person is learning and taking in.
- It helps me keep momentum and motivation because I want to make sure I’m always helpful to my friend.
John Steinbeck says it best:
“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person — a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.”
Voice Frame #2: Help a stranger heal the same pain you had
This is very similar to the “conversation with a friend” frame, but it’s also different in a few ways. By imagining yourself helping a stranger solve a painful problem:
- You’ll make it much easier to be brave in your writing and get past any fear or anxiety because you’re focused on easing their pain.
- You’ll focus on specific and actionable information, which will make your book better and more meaningful to your readers.
- You’ll keep your momentum and motivation because you’ll think about the task of alleviating their pain instead of getting stuck in the loop of thinking about writing (which gets you nowhere).
Uber Cool Trick: Combine the two. If you envision yourself talking to a friend AND helping them through something difficult that you’ve already done, that might be the best of both worlds.
Both of these methods help you get out of your own way and let your voice come through naturally.
Because you aren’t actually thinking about voice. You’re focused on the reader. Focusing on the reader, rather than on yourself, is a superpower technique you can use at every stage to create an effective, successful book.
Don’t worry about being a writer, just help people, and your voice will take care of itself.
Step 4. Follow these tips
How do you maintain energy?
Most authors who ask about “energy” are really asking about something else. This is generally fear or anxiety taking another form. Go read my post on overcoming writing fears for tips on how to deal with that.
That said, the most important aspect of energy is maintaining a baseline of self-care, and then having a schedule and sticking to it. If you do those two things, you’ll generate and protect most of your energy levels.
How do you beat procrastination?
Like almost everything that stops you from sitting down and writing, procrastination is a symptom of fear in another form.
If you find yourself procrastinating, ask yourself if you believe in your plan and your outline. Sometimes procrastination is your subconscious telling you that something is wrong with your plan.
Look at your plan for your book again. Examine it, and ask yourself if you believe in each section. If you don’t, then fix any problems you see, and you should be good.
Another great way to beat procrastination is to use public accountability. When you’re lagging on your book, post about it, or talk to people you trust. That will help you get support and make sure you find the will to keep going.
Should you write sequentially?
For most authors, you’re better off going sequentially unless you get stuck. If you get stuck, leave it, and go to the next place you can pick up. Fill in any holes later.
How long should your book be?
We tell our authors that their book should be as short as possible without leaving anything out.
You shouldn’t write thinking about length—just keep your book as short and focused as possible. Shorter books are much better. They sell better, and they’re more read, more engaging, and more impactful.
The data we have on this for non-fiction books is very clear:
- books under 100 pages don’t sell very well (lower perception of value)
- books between 100 and 199 pages sell the best
- books between 200 and 299 pages sell almost as well
- books over 300 pages sell the least (that length is a big investment of time)
As a rule of thumb, you can assume about 200 words per printed page, so 100-199 pages is 20k-40k words.
Don’t Use Jargon
Make sure your voice is accessible, and not full of needless jargon.
If you find yourself wanting to use jargon, go back to your ideal reader, and ask yourself, “Will they understand this? Is this necessary to effectively communicate with them?”
That said, if your audience likes jargon and wants to hear that in a book addressed to them, then use it. Just make sure it’s appropriate to your audience.
Typing vs. Writing by Hand
This isn’t going to be the right choice for everyone, but it’s a valid choice you can absolutely make: instead of typing your vomit draft, you can write it out by hand.
For some people, this works really, really well:
- It stops them from going back and editing because that process is extremely difficult in a hand-written manuscript.
- It makes it easier for them to get in the flow and just surrender to the writing process.
- For some people, writing by hand is a cleaner cognitive connection to their ideas than typing. This is NOT true for all people, but definitely for some.
This author sums up the benefits to her well:
The Scribe Method
“You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain.”
The Scribe Method is just recording yourself talking about the content in your book as the basis for the Vomit Draft.
The Scribe Method is in addition to the Vomit Draft method, not a replacement.
If you’re not a big fan of either typing or writing by hand, the Scribe Method might be just what you need.
The idea behind the Scribe Method is very simple: instead of facing a blank page and typing your first draft (or writing it by hand), you get your first draft down by speaking it out loud:
- Record yourself speaking
- Get the recording transcribed
- Edit the transcript into your first draft
This won’t get you to a final draft, but it substantially accelerates the writing process.
This method is an updated version of the way books used to be written a long time ago: they were dictated to professional scribes.
How To Use The Scribe Method
The Scribe process is very simple: instead of writing down the first draft, you take the outline and record yourself speaking through it, as if you were teaching your knowledge to someone or giving a lecture. Then you get your recordings transcribed and use that transcription as the foundation of your vomit draft.
Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Prepare to Record Your Audio
Technology makes the logistics of recording your content incredibly easy. There is an infinite number of ways to record yourself and a number of services you can use to get that recording transcribed.
Your computer or iPhone has a built-in recorder. You can use that easily.
We recommend one service specifically, simply because they make everything so easy: Rev.com. The cost is $1 per minute, which is standard in the industry.
There’s also an app called Temi that uses AI to transcribe, and it’s only $0.10 per minute. The quality is lower than human transcription but considering it’s 90 percent cheaper, that’s a worthwhile option as well.
Because you’re going to have your recording transcribed, be sure to create a quality audio file that will produce a clean and complete transcript. That means no background noise (like side conversations), and a good enough microphone, placed close to your mouth, to cleanly capture everything you say. You don’t need anything fancy—iPhone earbud microphones are great.
This should be obvious, but only record one chapter at a time, and one chapter per audio file. This makes the transcripts easy to manage.
For a final book of 30,000 words, you’ll have around 10-12 chapters. Aim for six to eight hours of interview recording. This means about 30-45 minutes per chapter.
Obviously, you won’t be able to do this all in one sitting. It’s important that you divvy out the length and make sure to get enough interview material for each chapter.
Step 2: Tips for recording your rough draft
Here are some tips to keep in mind while you’re delivering your first draft—all are strategies we’ve found to work well in the past:
A. Use the “teaching/helping a friend” voice frame
Think about who the ideal audience is for this book, and then pretend that you’re talking to them. Or to a friend who’s just like them.
Did you read my post on finding your target audience? Then go back to your avatar. If you can picture a real person you know who fits that mold, that will make this even easier.
Anticipate what that reader will be most interested in, what they would want to know next, and what questions they would have.
Be as thorough as humanly possible—even if it seems ridiculous—with the details of your instructions or concepts. Make sure not to gloss over any steps or rungs in the ladder leading up to your conclusion, even if they seem trivial or self-evident, because the reader won’t fully understand unless you explain everything.
B. Stay with the outline
Your outline is sequential for a reason; don’t just move through it randomly from point to point. Stay with the outline and on the point you mean to make.
Remember, this is the foundation of the first draft, so the more you stay with the outline and on track, the easier it will be for you to use the transcript to write the book.
You may realize you want to add or subtract information at some point down the line. That’s precisely what later drafts are for. For now, stick with the outline.
C. Explain everything completely
If you were lecturing simply to make your point, you could do it very quickly. But that’s not the point of your speaking. You’re teaching so the eventual reader will learn.
Your goal is to get a full, complete explanation out—far more than you probably need—so when you sit down to write out the book from your audio transcription, everything is there.
The book needs to contain enough information to explain the concepts to uninformed, as well as informed, readers.
More is almost always better than less, so please say everything that comes to mind on the current point, especially anything you think is relevant. Don’t worry about phrasing things eloquently, explaining everything perfectly on your first try, or not rambling.
Substance matters more than style; you only need to worry about getting the substance right. It’s much easier to cut words than to add words in places where you don’t explain enough.
If you feel like you’re being too obvious, always remember this quote by Nina Paley:
“Don’t be original; be obvious. When you state the obvious, you actually seem original.”
Create Your Rough Draft From The Transcript
Once you get the transcript of your audio recording from the transcription service, you’ll start the process of “translating” that audio transcript into book prose, which will be your first draft. Here’s how to you take the raw transcript and turn it into a rough draft:
Step 1: Open Two Files Next To Each Other
If you recorded each chapter as its own audio file, then you’ll get them back from the transcriptionist in their own separate Word files.
Here’s the easiest way we’ve found to edit these:
- Create a new document (in Word or Google Docs) for each chapter. This is where you will actually write your vomit draft.
- Put the two documents side by side on your computer screen.
Step 2: “Translate” The Audio Transcript Into Book Prose
This next step might seem weird, but trust me on this. You’re going to “translate” your audio text into book prose. This is not as challenging as original writing, since the words and ideas are there.
But this is important: this is not editing. You will need to rewrite the transcript in most cases.
You should “read, digest, write,” shifting attention from transcript to manuscript. We recommend you go paragraph by paragraph, rewriting each one transcription passage onto the manuscript.
The point is you need to physically type your new chapters, paragraph by paragraph. DO NOT just edit the existing chunks of raw transcription.
Why not just edit the transcription directly?
Because writing this way is MUCH easier than trying to edit your transcription into the kind of writing that reads well on the page.
There’s a tendency to want to turn off your brain and use exactly what you say in the transcription, verbatim. This leads to the need for a LOT of editing, and it ends up making the process pretty painful.
Once you get your transcript back, you’ll see that your transcribed audio doesn’t read like written English. It’s not even close. Attempting to edit it will drive you crazy.
It’s much better to read and absorb the spirit of what each transcript paragraph is trying to say, and then start fresh with sentences that make sense on the page.
This is essentially translating from one medium, audio, to another, writing.
Again, don’t worry about being perfect. You’re going to come back and do an edit later. This is just getting the first draft done.
You’re getting something down that you can come back to and perfect later.