We’re introduced to first drafts in high school. College-level writing requires we unlearn most—if not all—of what we learned about writing in high school, including how we think about first drafts. High school first drafts serve a dual purpose: preventing procrastination and grade-making. Your high school teacher sets a due date for a first draft of your paper one week before the final deadline to get you working on the assignment and create an opportunity for you to get an additional grade. In college, depending upon the instructor, you may still be required to submit first drafts before final deadlines; however, at this stage, the purpose of a first draft has evolved.
The college (and beyond) first draft is less about proving you’re working on a topic, and more about walking the instructor (and yourself) through how you’re thinking about a topic. On your course syllabus, if you see “first draft due,” don’t assume this draft needs to be close to what your final paper will look like. In other words, don’t pull an all-nighter trying to your write a first draft that forms a complete and solid argument.
College, although not explicitly, challenges you to approach the writing process differently. Use this opportunity to play with your ideas, thoughts, and assumptions. Have a conversation with your individual instructor to get a better idea of what they expect form you, or propose to submit the type of first draft that works best for you at any particular stage.
Following are ways we can reframe drafts for college writing:
The First First Draft
Free write. Don’t worry about correcting spelling errors, comma splices, missing citations, or other technical errors—it’ll only slow down your idea production. Get all of your thoughts out and on paper. At this stage, you’re writing to figure out what you want to write. Pull key theories and related concepts from your coursework. Write them down, in any order, along with what you know about them, how you feel about them, and in what ways you’d like to explore them more or apply them differently. From this exercise, you should derive a thesis statement or a general argument.
The Trimmed-Down First Draft
You’re going to lose a lot of the work you did in the first first draft, and that’s okay—that’s actually the whole point. Go through your first first draft and identify the meaty sections. Highlight all of the sentences where you’ve made the most profound claims or statements (i.e., the ones in which you address the purpose of the assignment). Then, trim the fat (i.e., erase all of the sentences that contain unproductive opinions, loose metaphors, generalizations, and summary that don’t address the purpose of the assignment). You may be left with three sentences, or fifteen, or two pages. Regardless, you’re in better shape than you were before. It’s better to do away with what will only end up weighing down or distracting from your argument at this stage, even if that means erasing 80-90 percent of the work you did in the first first draft.
If you find yourself attached to some sentences you’ve written, hesitant to permanently delete content, or unsure if something should be trimmed, there’s a great tip my graduate professor once shared with me. Trim down as much as possible—”more is more”—and create a separate document where everything you’ve cut from your trimmed-down draft can live. Dr. Green named this document “Extra Lovin’.” If at any point during the writing process you find yourself wondering, “What was that sentence I wrote in my first first draft I really liked? Even though I chose to delete it, I think it might be useful here in some way,” you can simply open up your Extra Lovin’ document for reference. I’ll tell you from experience, even if you do refer back to your Extra Lovin’ document, more often than not, you won’t even want to use what you’ve written.
The Real First Draft
Okay, you’ve finally made it to the real first draft. You’ve got a few sentences or maybe even a paragraph here and there we call the meaty sections. Build around each of these sections as much as possible, noting where you’ll need to do more research to back up claims or where there are counterarguments you’ll need to address. Most importantly, find a way to connect each of these meaty sections, to each other and to the main point.
The Flipped First Draft
The flipped first draft could also be considered your second draft, depending on how many drafts your instructor requires you submit. But, if they only require one, the flipped first draft shows you’ve done some substantial work—you’re more than half of the way there to your final version.
Prioritize and organize. The first time you write something, you follow a writer’s logic, from Point A to Point B. You’ll want to prioritize and organize your writing according to a reader’s logic, from Point B to Point A. The trick is to literally flip your argument. Whatever you write in your conclusion, relocate to the introduction. (You my be thinking that this flip leaves you conclusion-less—it doesn’t. It actually creates space for what your conclusion really should be to exist, which are the implications your argument has for further research and the applications your argument has in your field.)
Essentially, an academic paper is a strong argument, not a suspenseful story. The most important thing to remember is its okay—it’s necessary, actually—to give away the ending right from the start. Whatever conclusion you’ve drawn, whatever point you intend to make, tell your reader in one of the very first sentences. It may feel abrupt or unnatural the first few times you attempt this flip, but, for good writers, it eventually becomes second nature.