A topic that’s caught my eye recently is whether an author should over-write or under-write the first draft of their story. A number of people find it much easier hacking unnecessary words, paragraphs and scenes from their first drafts, rather than trying to pad out existing scenes or add new ones later. I think this is down to personal preference as well as practise. What works for one person won’t work for the next.

I have a first draft of a YA sci-fi novel which I estimated to turn out 70-80k words. I usually aim for around 80-100k for finished YA stories, so that additional 10-20k words is my leeway during edits. However, the first draft of this particular novel is currently 58k words. A number of my chapters are sparse and I hurried them just to get my ideas down. This has never happened before, and immediately upon completing the draft, I panicked. It just seemed way too short. I needed to remind myself that early drafts can work as skeletons, giving you networks and boundaries (the bones), but the story does not end there. It will continue to grow its internal organs and flesh as I rewrite. Panic over. I think, with this particular novel, I was crashing through the first draft so I didn’t become distracted by the important plot milestones. Hopefully that’s a good thing, and it means I was more focused on the bigger picture rather than too tangled in the finer details.

I have writer friends whose first drafts have come out hundreds of thousands of words too long. Key plot and character development has become lost beneath all the worldbuilding and scene-setting. This is fine. They work hard to chip away the bits that readers don’t need to have spelled out. Most smart readers can fill in the gaps themselves, if you leave enough hints.

What about you? Do you spill every idea or thought onto the page then cut away the excess afterwards? Or do you start with a skeletal foundation and build up from there? I’m also interested to hear who’s tried it both ways, and which way has worked best for you.