Every once in a while I get a rash of people asking “what’s a zero draft?” so I thought I might as well do a whole post on it, since I just finished one and I’m pretty sure I’m going to have another soon. (Beast of Wonder really, really wants to be written now, and I need it out of my head.)
It’s been said that all good writing is rewriting, and like all old chestnuts, it contains a grain of truth. Certainly there are occasions when a chunk of text falls out of my head and needs only minimal polishing before it’s ready for primetime, when I fall into a fugue state and churn out something beautiful. (The Muse does have to give me random rewards in order to keep me addicted, after all.) Those gifts are Easter-egg sprinkled through every draft, hidden hinges and visible ones for the story to hang on.
Zero draft means the work is done. It has the beginning, middle, end, there aren’t any places saying [[shit happens here]] or [[why isn’t this working, figure out the muppet here]] or [[jesus christ I have to kill this character soon]] or, one of my favorites, [[sex scene here?]]. It’s in recognizable book/short story/novella form; the corpse is whole and laid on the table. Celebrate, get a beverage of your choice, soak up the congrats of all your writer friends. You’ve given birth!
Now comes the hard part. Nobody else sees this draft. Oh, no. Are you kidding? It’s not even ready for my writing partner or beta readers yet.
The zero draft is the raw steaming lump of creativity. I set it aside, for at least a week. More difficult works sometimes have to marinate for longer. This serves two purposes: it helps ease the snapback, and it gives some slight but critical emotional distance from the big, messy word-baby you’ve just laid. You need that distance in order to make the word-baby better, prettier, more appealing, truer to its shape and intention.
Once it’s marinated for a little bit, you can go back and do the initial revision pass. You can fix typos, you can trim and craft better sentences, do continuity checks–basically, the initial pass is for arranging the corpse prettily on the table, embalming it, fixing structural problems, changing your dialogue tags to action or description tags, and the like. After that pass, it becomes a first draft.
Now other people–writing partner, beta readers, etc.–can see it. Now you can let it marinate for a little while longer before another revision pass if you can tell it needs more. A zero draft is the skeleton; a first draft is that skeleton with padding and clothing added. (Yes, I’m gleefully abusing metaphors here to make a point. You’d think I was a writer.) Work doesn’t stop at a first draft–I know writers who get to at least the third before they even consider letting an agent or editor near it. I tend to work hot and lean even in my first drafts, so I need agent/editor feedback on where the lacunae are, those things I can see so clearly in my head I forget the reader doesn’t have that image as well. It’s rare that I keep a book until the second or third draft.
Why don’t I call a zero a first draft? Because it’s finished, yes, but it’s not quite arranged, painted, or aesthetically where I want it. The brute work of typing is done, but it’s the cut and polish that makes it better. Still, the zero is a thing to celebrate. You’ve got to give yourself a break and a reward or two for finishing the damn story before you can gather the energy to make the corpse ready for the viewing.
It doesn’t mean the work is over, but you’ve got to take the good things where you find them.