Writing the Rough Draft

You’ve already done a lot of the hard work. You have clarified your topic and collected as many ideas as you can. You have specific scenes and details you want to use. Now it’s time to write the rough draft.

The first thing to do is give yourself a short deadline. Make sure you leave enough time to write several drafts; get feedback from a teacher, relative, or friend; make revisions based on those comments; take a few days off; and proofread several times.


When you settle in at your desk and turn on your computer, don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself desperate for a glass of water or a bowl of ice cream. Maybe you’ll start to feel a little chilly and need to get up and put on a sweater. You may feel compelled to write your grandmother that thank-you note or clean your closet, walk the dog, or even do your calculus homework. This desire to do anything other than to write is perfectly normal. Nothing is more daunting than a blank computer screen. All writers feel anxious when they start writing. The best cure is to begin writing.

Nobody writes a masterpiece the first time around. Even celebrated authors have to rewrite their work, sometimes over and over again. Hemingway wrote 39 versions of the ending to A Farewell to Arms before he was satisfied. Thoreau spent five years revising his first draft of Walden. Consider a lousy rough draft a good start.


Your rough draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be good. Nobody even has to see it. When you are writing your rough draft, give yourself permission to write poorly. This is your opportunity to explore your thoughts and ideas without worrying about how it sounds. This is not the time to focus on word choice or organization. The idea is to take the thoughts from inside your head and put them on paper, or computer screen so you have something to work with.

If you took notes while you were brainstorming and developing your topic, try turning the notes about each subtopic into a paragraph or several paragraphs. Imagine that you are telling a friend, sibling, parent, or favorite teacher about the topic. Without worrying about perfect structure or language, write down the words as if you were speaking.

Write quickly; don’t censor your thoughts and use whatever words come to you. Don’t deliberate over every word. Just type the one that first pops into your head. Remember, this is a rough draft. You’ll be going back later to figure out if there’s a better word or a better way of phasing your ideas.

Grammar and Spelling

Don’t worry about grammar and spelling—for now! You can go back and fix that later too. Even if those squiggly red lines appear underneath a word telling you that you’ve misspelled it, or if you just wrote something awkward, irrelevant, or inappropriate, don’t delete it or go back and fix it. Just keep forging ahead. The more words you can get down the better. It’s always easier to cut than to add.

The Skeleton

You can only organize your essay if you have something to work with. Think of it this way: You couldn’t clean or organize your room unless you had a mess to begin with. For now, you’ll be working on getting all your thoughts out, without getting mired in the mechanics of writing or the details of your story.

Now you are creating what is known as “the skeleton.” You don’t even need to be concerned about the facts. If you are not sure about a detail, you can add a question mark or a note to yourself, or leave a blank. Nothing is etched in stone.

Keep Your Rough Draft Rough

If you examine every word before going to the next one (going back to edit or delete what you just wrote) and pausing to worry about grammar, spelling, or organization, you will never be able to move forward and get all your ideas down—which is the name of the game when it comes to the rough draft.

To get things started, give yourself a short amount of time to write freely and as quickly as possible. Tell yourself that for fifteen minutes, you have to stay in your chair and write, without checking your e-mail, downloading another song off the Internet, or asking your mom what’s for dinner.

After fifteen minutes, you can take a five-minute break to reward yourself and clear your mind. Soon you will find that you can write for longer intervals—maybe twenty minutes, then a half hour, or maybe even an hour. It’s good writing practice to set up an allotted period of time and be disciplined enough to stick to it.

Writing can be cathartic, especially when you are writing about a topic close to your heart. Think of it as getting your energy out. Instead of stressing out, try to focus on the task at hand. As Duke Ellington said, “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”

Taking Breaks

You’re probably not going to write your entire rough draft in a single session. That’s perfectly fine. Breaks are an important part of the creative process. Breaks will keep you awake, alert, and fresh. You can take breaks to reward yourself for finishing a section, or if you’re feeling a little stuck.

It seems natural to take a break at the end of a paragraph. But some people like to stop in the middle of a paragraph or a section, so they don’t have to start a completely new task when they go back to it. This is a matter of personal preference.

If possible, try to be smart about when you take your breaks. Before abandoning your computer, first try to jot down any other ideas that may have been floating around in your head that you didn’t get to yet. This way when you sit down tomorrow or next week, the words will jog your memory.

Save the Introduction for Later

Many students make the mistake of trying to write the introduction first. Sounds logical, right? But if you think about it, it would be impossible to introduce something if you haven’t clearly defined what it is you’re introducing. In other words, once you get all your ideas down and start to look at what you’ve written, you will then have a much better sense of where your essay is really going. Although you may have predetermined your topic and what you want to focus on, you will only really see your ideas start to shape up once you’ve started to write. You can write a much better intro once you’ve fleshed out your ideas. You will never start the essay if you belabor how to begin.

When you get someone else to read your rough draft, or when you go back to revise it yourself, you will probably find the perfect first sentence buried somewhere in the middle or even toward the end of your draft. Most writers find that when they revise, they find the hook that will draw in the reader. Similarly, many writers wait until later to find a good conclusion somewhere in their first draft.

Save Your Drafts

When you start working on a new draft, save the file from the last version you worked on with a new name, according to the date or the draft (Essay_draft1, Essay_draft2, etc.). That way, if you deleted something you want to use later, you can go back to an old draft to find it.

Dig Deeper

While you are writing, try to state more than just the facts. This is the time to try and take your ideas further. If you think you don’t have anything else to say, look at what you’ve jotted down and ask yourself: “So what?” Why is what you said important? What did it teach you? What does it mean? What are the broader implications?

Suppose you are writing a description of someone you admire. You are able to describe that person in detail: She has big brown eyes and a beautiful smile; she wears stylish clothes and walks with a confident gait. How do you dig deeper? What exactly do you admire about her beyond her physical attributes or her clothes? Does she have a way of speaking or expressing herself in an unusual way? Why do you think she is stylish? Does she dress in an unusual way that you feel is artistic? By thinking about more than the facts, you will suddenly find more to say that will then be interesting to the reader.

You don’t have to have well-formed opinions when you first write down your thoughts. When you work on your next draft, you’ll go back and figure out how your ideas connect and make sure there is a unifying principle.

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