For Writers

The Zero Draft: How to Take Your Jumbled Scraps of Bookish Ideas and Make Them Story-Shaped

Hello, hello, Happy Writers! Today, we’re talking about Zero Drafts. Now, we’ve all heard of First Drafts: the very first incarnations of the stories we tell. They’re messy, they’re earnest, and they very, very often go unfinished, as they’re very often abandoned. Now, why is that? Sometimes, admittedly, stories just don’t work, and the writer loses their motivation to keep clacking away at the keyboard. But, oftentimes, the writer is simply overwhelmed — lost and frustrated and not sure what the story is that they’re telling.

Often, this is because the writer needed a Zero Draft. A Zero Draft is the percolation stage. It’s the answer to the question: how do I get all of the ideas in my head into something story-shaped? A Zero Draft is and should be the first step to writing a novel. 

So, this post basically answers two questions: What is a Zero Draft? which, in turn, answers the question:

I have a story for a novel in my head and I’m not sure how to write it down. What do I do??

Step One for writing your Zero Draft: Stuff all your notes in a single document.

You’ve got a bunch of characters running around, being snarky, in your head. You can see the world they live in as vividly as your own — or, snatches of it, at least. You have an idea for a conflict. You even have snatches of dialogue. You know there’s going to be an alien invasion, for instance, and you know your main character is a twenty-something College grad who toils away at a grocery store all day, stocking shelves. You want delicious frozen meatballs to play a role, but you have no idea how to put all these disparate pieces together.

So, you need to write them down.

In one central location. Not in a whole bunch of notebooks. Not on your phone, and on some napkins, and on your laptop, and oh, also on your wall, scrawled in shaky pencil scratchings like an inmate at a prison. No, you need them all in a single document on your computer. I swear. 

It’s so important to keep your notes in one place. You will forget things. You will lose things. You will stumble onto scenes you’ve spent the last week painstakingly writing only to find out you had already painstakingly written it. Putting all your notes, drafts, and scene scraps into a single document will benefit you in the long run, even if it seems super overwhelming at first.

I highly suggest using Scrivener to sort out your thoughts! You can divide your files into a bajillion different documents if you so desire, but everything is still kept together in a single project. Organization!

Step Two: Organize those notes into chronological order

It can be so easy to have a long document of notes that skips around your story as frenetically as an exhilarated child skips around a playground. You paste indiscriminately from a bunch of different writing sessions and end up with a document that has a little bit of chapter one, an idea for chapter seven, a conversation that has to happen earlier in the book, three drafts of a potential climax, oh and here’s another bit for the first chapter, don’t forget!! Spend a day (or two, or three!) compiling your notes into chronological order. 

This does not have to be perfect! You might (read: absolutely will) have a change of heart at some point in writing your novel and decide to re-order things. That’s 100% part of the writing process! But, if you’ve got all of these story scraps sitting in your lap, you probably already have a vague idea of which need to happen first, which need to be set up by others, which go together, which are for the ending — that sort of thing. So, give yourself a couple of days to organize your big bursting document so that, scrolling or sorting through it, you have something that seems to move in, more or less, chronological order. 

(If you’re having trouble figuring out when everything in your novel should happen, consider checking out: Plotting In a Pinch: The Happy Writer’s Guide to Novel Writing)

Step Three: (Optional) Make a chart of all scenes in your outline

This step depends on who you are as a writer — if you’re a pantser who loves going in blind, creating an outline at this point might seem overwhelming and lack spontaneity. But, if you think it will help you, I highly recommend it! 

Now, I don’t suggest you make a super detailed outline. But, it could be helpful to keep your thoughts in order to make a kind of To Do list for your novel thus far. 

It can be as detailed as:

1. Jane works at the supermarket, has conflict with her boss, ignores coworkers gathering around TV in break room

2. Jane hears something in frozen foods section.

3. Coworker yells for Jane to come see the news — something is going on. 

4. Ignoring him, Jane walks into frozen foods and finds the alien going to town on bags upon bags of frozen meatballs

Or as simple as:

1. Jane finds alien at supermarket

2. Sneaks alien home

3. Something happens with Mom???

4. President speech on news

5. Jane needs to get more meatballs

In either case, you’re given yourself a roadmap. You’re not dictating to yourself exactly what the dialogue is going to be, what every paragraph needs to detail, but you’re giving Future Frustrated Writer!You an idea of where to go next. An idea of the shape of the story you’re putting down. You’ve got your notes in one place, organized, and now you’re taking another day to sketch out a rough outline (kind of like a painter putting down a pencil sketch of the artwork they’re about to embark on) so that you have a good sense of what you’re trying to do.

Step Four: Begin Fleshing Out Scenes in Order

The main idea here is to take each scene and start adding details. You don’t have to write the scene from beginning to end yet — this is the Zero Draft! We’re still getting ideas onto the page! But, this step is the real beginning to the writing process: sit down with every scene or moment you’ve got planned and start writing it. 

Now, I want to make clear: the working in order part of this step is technically optional — if you’re stuck and need to jump around your story to whatever you feel inspired to work on, absolutely do that! But, at first, try to work in order. You’ll be able to follow scenes and chapters to their natural conclusions, watch the story unfold in real time just like a reader will. When you write in order, there’s a sense of building momentum as you climb towards the climax, and you have everything you need to write an ending that’s satisfying, supported by all the little details and callbacks you’ve set up for as you wrote the beginning and middle. 

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed fleshing out the scenes you’ve got so far in your draft, remember a few things:

1. You can jump around to other moments that excite you!

2. If stuck, go back to your outline! Consider where you’re trying to go and experiment with different routes to get there!

3. Set a timer, a word goal for the hour or the day, and get words written. Sometimes, if you just start typing, if you just pick a starting spot and force yourself to write a sentence for it, you’ll end up surprising yourself and writing a lot more than you thought you would! (Check out my post: Break Your Writing Into Bite-Sized Chunks: How I Got In the Habit of Writing Every Day)

Still feeling stuck on how to flesh out your outline? Consider the following:

1. Pick a specific character’s head to inhabit for each scene. If you feel it’s not working, try jumping into another character’s head and see if their POV is better suited for the moment.

2. Find imagery — sensory details — to start scenes with. If you’re trying to get words down for a scene and have no idea where to begin, just describe the scene. What does it smell like? Sound like? Are there any tastes or textures? Describe the setting, the weather, or the characters’ clothing. Decide on one of your character’s emotions (maybe they’re angry, or bursting with happiness, or starting to feel ill) and write a paragraph about that and how it relates to the broader question of what this scene is trying to do.

3. Find alternates to dialogue tags. Sometimes when I’m Zero Drafting, I’ll have a huge scene of just dialogue. The inclination is to scroll through, add some dialogue tags, and then frown at the scene with dissatisfaction, as it feels sparse and impersonal. If you find yourself in a similar position, spice up your dialogue with alternatives to dialogue tags. Add action instead, or internal thoughts, or musings on the characters’ various attitudes or aspects.

Rather than:

“Do you have an alien hidden in your closet?” her mother asked.

“Of course not,” said Jane. 


Something behind the closet door shuffled again—then decisively went bonk. Her look of suspicion deepening, Jane’s mother took a step into the room.

“Do you have an alien hidden in your closet?”

Jane laughed—or, she made a noise that was meant to be a laugh and came out sounding like she had just been punched in the stomach. “Of course not.” 

Try expanding your snatches of dialogue into full moments, and you’ll steadily watch those moments become full, robust scenes! (See How to Add Layers to Your Dialogue for a little more help!)

4. Rewrite ‘was’ whenever possible. I love the word ‘was’, love it, but it can sound passive and distance your reader from the dialogue taking place.

So, if you’re stuck in a rut of saying “was” in every sentence, try more active verbs:

Old version: She was worried the alien would soon run out of meatballs.

Without ‘was’: The alien gobbled down meatballs faster than Jane could supply them.

5. Again, when in doubt: Check your outline.

Step 5: At some point, after a week or two or four of this drafting, take a step back and take stock of what you’ve accomplished.

The great thing about the Zero Draft is that it tends to smoothly transition itself into the First Draft without you really noticing! As you continue to flesh out the various ideas in your document, you’ll find them organizing into scenes, and then chapters, until soon you have something decidedly story-shaped. So, just kept writing, keep believing in yourself and your story, and watch it all unfold.

Happy Writing. <3

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Christina is an aspiring novelist, who wanted to create a safe, fun place to share advice, inspiration, and motivation with other writers!

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