The Power of the Zero Draft

As a writer, editor, and writing coach, I often get asked how I can complete so many commissions in a short amount of time. Writing commissions, especially, requires time for research and then for long-form writing and edits, not to mention proofreading.

My answer? The zero draft.

I first learned about the zero draft as a writing disciple of Dr. Joem Antonio, while a student in the university he teaches in. He noticed that when I sit down to write, even with all the details at my fingertips, I would worry about the correct words to use, the correct order of sentences, the overall correctness of the piece.

Dr. Joem introduced me to what he called the “ugly” draft. It is the draft that does not exist, the invisible draft. The draft that is written once and never spoken of again. (I call it the zero draft because some writing students are not fans of the other term.)

Once in a while, the ugly draft grows a bit, sheds its down and pin feathers, and turns into a swan. Most of the time, it gets all the bad writing out so the good writing can emerge.

Everything, everything can be edited.

The truth is, it is not my lack of writing skills that stops me from writing. As a writing coach, I can say with a certain level of confidence that it is very likely that your writing skills are much higher than you think. What stops me in my tracks, what slows down almost every writer, is the fear of writing something we are not satisfied with. Something bad.

“This is not the only draft you will ever write.”

The Power of the Zero Draft

Dr Joem’s words resound in my head every time I sit down to write, every time I sit down with a student. I remind my students (and myself), “Everything, everything can be edited. Everything can be changed and improved. However, if you write nothing, nothing can be edited. Nothing can be changed or improved. There will literally be nothing to work with.”

(One of my favorite coaching memories is a student saying “Don’t think just write, right??” He then proceeded to yell his way through the zero draft to release the stress. We finished that project on time.)

So far, every writing coaching I have had eventually includes a conversation about the zero draft. I have seen students unable to write more than two lines in five minutes learn how to write seven to ten in the same amount of time. Writers who dislike tight deadlines become able to submit on the dot, with meaningful content. Teenagers who believed they could not write or that they were vocabulary-deficient discover that, somehow, writing starts with pen to paper and only gets better from there.

I have yet to find a more powerful tool than the zero draft when it comes to writing.

I hope you, too, will learn to start every writing project with a zero draft. Even if you have to yell your way through it.

Below is my writing process for blogs! It might help you craft your own. Don’t forget: Everything can be rewritten.

First, I write one thing I want to say in my blog. It might become the main topic, or just a jump-off point.

Second, I research anything I need to cite in my blog. I often write more of a reflection, but if I want to quote anyone or use a statistic or fact, I make sure I have the source for that ready to link.

Third, I write the zero draft. I do not start at the beginning of the blog. I write whatever part of the blog is clear to me. That might be the middle, end, or, when I’m lucky, the beginning. I continue writing until all my thoughts about the topic are written out.

Fourth, I reread the zero draft. I already know I might use little to none of what is written, so I read wondering what could be a good anchor for what I really want to write. I look through the disorganized threads of thought figuring out which ones I really want to use.

Fifth, I edit from the zero draft. This might mean extensive cutting, or simply rewording or restructuring the content. Whatever emerges becomes the first draft.

Lastly, I edit from the first draft. Instead of rewriting, I use the draft as a foundation and shape the content to reflect what I want to say. Repeat as needed, but put a limit to your revisions. I usually stop after the third draft.

I hope this helps you! Until next time.