Sometimes you have an idea of what your novel is about, and sometimes you need to know how to write a discovery draft to find where the story is going.

an empty chair in front of a laptop and a latte with the text "How to Write a Discovery Draft"

There is no wrong way to write a novel. And the more I write, the more I find my process changes.

Writing a discovery draft is one of many ways you can find out more about your story before you write the real thing. This is the draft that’s all about discovery.

(I mean, that’s why it’s called that.)

Before we talk about how to do it, let’s talk about what a discovery draft is and isn’t.

What Is a Discovery Draft?

Discovery drafting can be a lot like outlining. But instead of sticking to the main points, you let yourself play around a little. And you can always start with an outline before the discovery draft.

The basic idea behind the discovery draft is to let yourself get all the ideas out on paper. It won’t be a fully fleshed out novel. And there will be tons of plot holes.

But what you will have is an idea of where the story needs to go.

You don’t have to write a discovery draft from start to finish. And you don’t have to do it in full sentences. In fact, you can write a few paragraphs here, add a bulleted list there, and then go into a fugue state and write 40 pages about the setting.

The goal here is to get a feel for the world you’re creating. So, while the plot will be a part of what you discover while drafting, you’re also going to find that you discover a lot more.

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Not everything will make it into the final draft. Consider the discovery draft the place you go to get the raw materials of your story.

How to Write a Discovery Draft

Okay. Now that we’ve defined what a discovery draft is, let’s talk about how to write one. You’ve probably been doing it, at least a little bit, your whole life.

001: Just write.

Discovery drafts aren’t about putting out polished stories. You’re just getting ideas out of your head and into a Word Document.

So, don’t edit as you go. Just write. I say this all the time.

The skills you use to write a lot of words are the same skills that will serve you when it comes to writing a discovery draft. You are writing quickly. As quickly as the thoughts hit you. And knowing how to write fast will be useful here.

So all you need to do is write. That’s it. Don’t edit. Don’t worry about word choice. No one but you is going to see this draft.

And at the end of the day, the discovery draft is just for you to figure out what you need to know about this story idea that’s kicking around in your head.

002: Get all the ideas out.

Now, there’s no need to censor. You can put whatever wild noise you want to in this draft. And no one can stop you.

Discerning what is worth keeping is a task for later you, the you that edits. But for now, just get those ideas out.

So the story doesn’t have to be plausible yet. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a fully-formed story. You don’t have to have a plot. It can just be a vibe, and when you figure out where you’re going, you can fix it later.

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Let yourself play with the ideas however you need to.

During the discovery draft, it’s all about having a close-up look at the ideas. Then, you can zoom out and shape them or cut them entirely when it’s time to write the next draft.

003: Let it be a mess.

You do not have to format this draft the way you would format a document you send to an editor. This is just for you.

So, if it helps, use different fonts or headings that you wouldn’t put in an actual novel. Highlight things to come back to. Don’t worry about indentation or line spacing. Enjoy the bullet point function.

Again, this draft is all about ideas. So don’t worry so much about how it looks or if it’s formatted correctly.

It shouldn’t be. The key is to create a document you can come back to and harvest your good ideas from.

And ideas, much like real vegetables, grow in dirt and fertilizer. So, let your discovery draft exist accordingly.

004: Give it time to rest.

So, you’ve written the draft! That’s awesome. Do not go through it immediately after.

You need to step away so you can get the perspective you need.

Ideally, you’d write this discovery draft as quickly as possible. Like maybe over the course of 3 days to a week.

The reason you need to do this quickly is so you can get all the ideas and information in your head out and into a document. And because it doesn’t matter what’s there, you can just keep typing until the ideas are gone.

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But then, you need to let it rest about the same amount of time. The reason for that is because you need to be able to zoom out and figure out where the story is.

You can’t do that if you’re still in drafting mode and trying to write. The time to rest allows your objective self to take over, and the inner editor comes out.

Only, this is more of a conceptual editor situation. So you need to give yourself enough time to step away so that your conceptual editor can show up to evaluate what’s worth keeping.

005: Don’t edit this draft. Cherry pick it.

So, the discovery draft isn’t going to get edited. You’re not going to go through what you’ve written and make corrections or changes.

You’re a scavenger now. You’re seeing what can be turned into a full story and what won’t make the cut.

So take some time to see where you really enjoyed writing and what could make a story that someone would want to read. Pull those parts, and move on.

Then, take what you’re keeping and re-outline the story.

Now, it’s time to write the first draft.

Do You Write Discovery Drafts?

Do your stories start with a discovery draft? How do you approach fiction writing? Do you like to be messy while you draft? How much of your discovery drafts end up in your final novel?

2 Responses

  1. I love this idea of discovery drafts so much! And scavenging for pieces that can then be turned into other things. I’m totally going to use this.

    1. It’s my favorite part of the writing process. It’s just you hallucinating wildly and letting the story happen. And then when you’re done, you realize that you may have hallucinated a bit too much, and you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.

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