How to Write a Tighter First Draft

Writing for a living may sound romantic to those who’ve chosen a different career path. Non-writers think we spend our days drinking coffee (true), banging out quirky prose (maybe), contemplating brilliant ideas (…), all while working in bunny slippers and waiting for magic writing fairies to flitter down and kiss the page (we wish!).

But ask any Wordsmithie their secrets to effective commercial writing, and they’ll likely offer somewhat more grounded answers: “Understanding the client’s goals.” “Reading the client’s guidelines.” “Writing for the client’s audience.” “Proofreading, editing and revising.”

Truth is, writing for marketing communications is as much about process as product.

We’ve written about how business writers can overcome writer’s block. Now, let’s tackle its evil opposite twin: writing with too many ideas in mind. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the tsunami of source materials available—between the client’s website, competitors’ websites, industry studies and consumer data, news articles and blogs, and social media. That’s even before we start doing our own company and client interviews.

Here are five tips for writing a tighter first draft that’s closer to the final version the client desires.

Understand the client’s goals Wordsmithie works with clients to develop a creative brief that serves as a roadmap for the writing project. Format, audience and goals should all be detailed in the creative brief. I keep the brief handy while writing to make sure I stay on course

Organize source materials As a colleague wrote here on the Wordsmithie blog, there’s no such thing as too much information when it comes to a writing project. We’ll take any and all source material available. The trick is learning how to home in on the pieces of information needed. We rely on our clients for guidance and refer to the creative brief to help us organize source materials. I print out key pages and highlight passages so I can see the “bricks” of the editorial piece I am building

Outline main sections and points You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint. Likewise, drafting without a sketch of the pieces needed to write the final product can lead to info-overload—and a first draft that misses the mark. An outline can be as simple as chunking out the main ideas and points on paper. I write my headline and subheads before drafting to create a scaffolding that I can fill in. Wordsmithie often shares our outlines with clients to make sure we’re all on the same page before we begin writing.

Mind the word countThe “check word count” feature of any word processing program is a writer’s best friend. I constantly watch the length of my paragraphs, making course adjustments along the way so my first draft is evenly paced. (Remember, it takes longer to writer shorter.)

Make sure you haven’t missed anything Once I have a first draft that I’ve spellchecked, proofread, and revised to my liking, I always go back and re-read the client guidelines. Sometimes writers get swept up in the creative process, and it’s easy to overlook an item the client wanted covered. Better to discover this in the first draft and revise than wait for the client to point out the omission.

Sometimes a first draft is just that—a starting point. Clients often ask for more than one round of revisions as themes and ideas come into sharper focus. But spending a little time up front sorting through materials and planning out the writing can save valuable time and costs down the road.

ABOUT Heidi LaFleche

Heidi launched her writing career as a newspaper and magazine journalist—most notably as a Boston correspondent for People magazine. She transitioned into marketing communications for business, helping clients find the right words to engage their audiences. Heidi is a Senior Editor for Wordsmithie, and also runs her own freelance writing business on the side. She writes within a range of industries including technology, healthcare, financial services, legal services, education and nonprofits. Her slogan: “Every business has a story. Let’s tell yours together.”