5 Steps to First Draft: Essays

In a previous post I shared a brand-new FREE resource I’ve created, 5 Steps to First Draft…Finally! It’s a quick-start guide to stop procrastinating and start writing in a way that is manageable, fun, and helps you get that first draft written before you know it. Grab it here!

Today’s post is how to use the five-step process specifically to craft a personal (creative nonfiction) essay.

Our local independent bookstore sells Yay! Life! magnets. Have you seen these? They are just plain fun. On our refrigerator, we currently have

Yay! Cats! (my daughter)

Yay! Ninjas! (my son)

Yay! Books! (ahem)

I’d like to offer another suggestion:  Yay! Stories!

I love creative nonfiction. Whether it’s research-based or a straightforward true story, I immediately latch on to the writer’s vulnerability and willingness to explore the universal truths behind his or her unique experience. I think this is why I love writing it, too. I like to believe that even though my experiences are my own, something within them connects to the rest of humanity.

All this to say, I feel less alone when I read and write personal narrative.

But setting out to write an essay can feel a little daunting. I experienced this thing, we might think, but how do I make it interesting for anyone else? Especially if it wasn’t a set of life-and-death circumstances?

The 5 Steps to First Draft…Finally!  method can come in handy here, getting us out of our own heads and into the chair with focus and a clear path. 

(If you haven’t read through the free guide yet, I recommend it! What I talk about here will make more sense if you do. You can grab it here.)

Pre-Step: List every idea you have.

I don’t know about you, but my stories all blend together. Thinking about a high school football game triggers another memory of a college party triggers another memory of an early date with my now-husband. Thinking about my 10-year-old’s upcoming birthday triggers a memory of his birth, which inevitably triggers a memory of an early miscarriage.

This is how our brain works. There is nothing going wrong here.

But it is distracting and can sometimes cause doubt in the topic we’ve chosen to write. So listing every memory that comes to mind – and often – is a really useful exercise. Your brain can relax, knowing that its job of reminding you of things is done, and your creativity can rise to the top.

Choose a topic and structure.

In the free guide I encourage this mantra:  There is no “right” decision when it comes to your stories. They are all worthy of being shared.

Just choose.

However, when it comes to structure, there are a lot of options and one may be a better fit than others. If creative nonfiction is your jam, I highly recommend making sure that you are reading it. A lot.

A resource I can’t recommend enough is Priscilla Long’s book Village Books and Paper Dreams” data-wplink-url-error=”true”>The Writer’s Portable Mentor.  It contains an entire section devoted to narrative structures. She also makes a great suggestion:  choose an essay you admire, break it down to where you understand the structure, and then write into that structure.

Set your intention.

Do. Not. Skip. This. Step.

In my mind, intention is what makes the difference between a water-cooler anecdote and a quality personal narrative.

What are you trying to say?

There are several things to consider here. Who is your audience? How did the events change you as a person? What do you want to say to your audience about that change?  Answer these questions and it will dictate every choice you make, from the broadest theme to the smallest word.

Set your completion date.

My writing group meets every month, but we don’t all share each month. So when my turn rolls around, I think I have the entire month to write something for them to read. And I procrastinate, and I dawdle, and I end up writing it a day or two before I’m supposed to give them my draft.

When I was using my group as my only accountability, I got one first draft done every 2-3 months.

When I started setting my own completion deadlines, I upped my output dramatically.

Since we’re talking here about an essay, not a full-length memoir, I want to push you on this one. You do not need a month to do a first draft. You could probably do it in a couple of hours. There will be other considerations (see the next step) but remember that this completion date is for the first draft, and first drafts are not supposed to be perfect.

Let it be imperfect, and let it get written.

List all tasks.

Free writing is a big one for me. I free write about my intention, but I also write the story – events only – beginning to end. I write about who I was before, during, and after. If someone else was in the story, I write it from their point of view.

Each essay and each topic will require its own set of tasks. Research may be involved, or interviews with family members, or an hour spent with your photo albums.

Keep asking yourself What else? until nothing remains.

Put all tasks on the calendar.

And there you go. Your story is ready to be written. All you have to do is show up and remember that your story matters.


Are you a writer of creative nonfiction?  Come on over to the {extra}ordinary stories Facebook group! We’d love to learn about what you write. Also, be sure to tell us what your strategies and challenges are with regards to planning and writing your true, personal stories!

Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

Stop wondering what to work on and where to start, and start making real progress toward a finished piece of writing.

Take one sitting to plan what you will do – and when – and your first draft is as good as done!

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