The Hardest Part is How to Begin:
Tackling the First Draft

By Kyle Cushman, Vermont College of Union Institute and University

The moment is here-you've gone to class, done the reading, taken notes, percolated your ideas (which may have involved time spent vacuuming your car or rearranging the posters on your dorm room wall while thinking over your topic), and maybe you've even tried some pre-writing techniques such as brainstorming or mind-mapping. The deadline for the paper draws near and there is no avoiding the fact that you must sit down and write the first draft. Yet, as you open the blank Word document or thumb to a blank page in your notebook, you notice your heart pounding, a sinking feeling in your stomach, your fingers feeling immobile…suddenly you need to make a cup of tea or go for a jog.

Many students feel trepidation when they actually sit down to write the first draft of a writing assignment. They may have spent a great deal of time avoiding the task of beginning the draft and they may now be under the crunch of a deadline. This is a crucial moment, for whether or not a student can overcome their fear and start their first draft can determine whether they complete the assignment on time.

The problem with first drafts is that the expectations are often too high. Self esteem, identity, and one's vision of a "good" student are wrapped up in the act of writing, not to mention grades. Students often feel that the first draft simply must be perfect or they have failed. The more learning support staff and faculty can reiterate that writing is a process that usually involves many drafts, the more easily a student can face the potential of a substandard first draft and simply start writing to get the process going.

To help students let go of idealistic perceptions of the first draft, and to avoid the writer's "freeze" that often accompanies this idealism, encourage students to:

Writing style is also a consideration when writing the first draft. Some students, usually those who have a multi-directional learning style, will prefer to work on the first draft in (what may seem to others) a "pell mell" fashion. These types of learners will write a few paragraphs, cross them out, write a few more, jump ahead and work on the ending, and go back to add a new paragraph to the beginning before jumping ahead to tinker with a section in the body of the essay. Other students, usually those who are more linear, need to put careful thought into each word, sentence and paragraph while working steadily from the beginning to the end of the essay. These students tend to revise a lot as they go. Helping students to develop an awareness of how they write best and encouraging them to honor their individual writing style will also help to alleviate the discomfort that many students feel about writing the first draft.

The important message here about first drafts is that "writing doesn't have to be right the first time and there is no one right way to write!"

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