The Zero Draft: a big messy word-web for catching ideas


As an extension of the need to ‘write a shitty first draft’, I have found the concept of a ‘zero draft’ one of the most freeing and useful tools I have as a writer. Here’s how it works:

Maybe you have a plan. Maybe you just have a vague concept. Maybe the voice of a character has been bugging you with a story to be told. Perhaps it’s just a hankering to get the words onto the page, like a spider spinning silk.

Some spider’s webs are wonders of symmetry and complex geometry. Some of them are a mess, with strands going every which way. But guess what – so long as the web catches a fly or two, it doesn’t matter what it looks like.

The bug is the thing.

Your zero draft is a web for catching ideas. The more strands the better. Make them messy. Make them sticky. Put down the broom of criticism that doesn’t like mess and wants to sweep them all away.


A zero draft is all about getting words onto the page. You decide at the outset that this is not a piece of writing that you will ever show anybody. Seriously, write on the cover of the document: IN CASE OF MY UNEXPECTED DEATH, BURN THIS SHIT.

And then, you write.

This is the important thing. You start where you can, and you find your way through to some kind of ending. Along the way you will encounter characters, twists, ideas, questions. There will be things that you will want to keep. There will be things that you will be happy to pretend you never wrote. At the end, you will have something messy, perhaps confusing, perhaps alluring. And hopefully somewhere in there, a strong idea or two will be caught in the strands, buzzing and trying to flap its little wings.

And then, and this is important, when you’re done, you put it aside, take a breath and start again.


Are you serious?

You write a whole manuscript and then you basically pretend like your house burned down and you write it all over again?


Well, maybe.

In my experience, not every story needs a zero draft. Some will come out closer to finished than others. But for me, there are some stories that will never get written unless I give myself the freedom and the patience that the zero draft offers.

One reason for this is that I suffer from a condition that I imagine is probably shared by at least some other writers – I think by writing.

I can daydream or brainstorm or snowflake or whatever people do to plan a story beforehand, but the truth is I mostly have very little idea what I’m doing until I actually do it, or possibly sometime afterwards.

And conversely, one of the reasons it has taken me a long time to grasp the idea of a zero draft is because, as a writer, I believe that the words I use matter.

I take pride and pleasure in putting words together in ways that are pleasing or evocative. And that’s fine – words are, fairly obviously, a pretty important part of writing. But if you want to be a novelist, if you want to tell stories, you need to look beyond the words.


I now find it exciting to think of my story as something that exists separately from the words I write on paper: I am acknowledging the importance of my characters, of what happens to them, of what matters to them, and of what I’m learning about their world.

Absolutely the words I use to tell their stories are significant, and I will spend a lot of time and thought and effort shaping them, but I’m also going to take the time to get to know my characters and their stories.


This is just one way of working. I believe there is no right or wrong way to write, there is only what works and what doesn’t work for any given writer and any given story.

Good luck people, and happy web-spinning!


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