The first draft of an essay or other written assessment is often referred to as the rough draft. We call it rough for a reason: it's normal for the earliest version of an essay to be disjointed, underdeveloped, or otherwise messy.
We argue that the messiness isn't just normal: it's a good thing. When you embrace the rough drafting stage as a time to explore content, test out structural options, inventory your ideas, and play with the writing, it can lead to insights you might not discover otherwise.
The tabs of this guide will support you in completing rough drafts of assignments and understanding how you work best as a writer. The sections are organised as follows:
Embracing the chaos of an imperfect rough draft can benefit your writing. Accepting this premise in theory is a start, but putting it into practice is trickier – to help you out, in this section, we will cover practical tips and approaches to get started on a rough draft.
Many students feel self-conscious or even ashamed when their work is in a rough state. They want their writing to be engaging, logically structured, and well-supported from the very first attempt. That's a nice fantasy, but in reality, those unrealistic expectations can lead to procrastination and writing anxiety.
'Whether it's a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.' – Stephen King ¹
To state it rather unacademically, when we produce a first draft, our goal is to make words happen. That's it. Our goals shift as we get deeper into the process: as we transform that first draft into a second draft or the second into a third, we begin to make structural changes, refine our arguments, incorporate additional evidence, and more.
The rough draft, though? Again, this is simply where you make words happen.
For most people, the writing process begins with activities like research/reading, invention, planning, and just plain thinking. Amidst all those activities, writers sometimes lose track of the assignment's specific aims. Therefore, when you sit down to begin your draft, carefully re-read the assignment prompt, first.
Next, study any invention or planning items you have completed (e.g. mind maps, outlines, bulleted lists, and so on). Even writers who prefer to dive right in might benefit from jotting down a few important moves they plan to make in the draft (i.e., 'Define theory of XYZ'; 'Analyse the two case studies'; 'Explain method used').
Finally, choose a general starting point for your drafting: it does not have to be the beginning! You might find it easiest to begin with the introduction, but many people prefer to draft the body of the essay first.
You might struggle to start drafting because you fear your words aren't good enough or 'academic' enough. It's true that academic writing should aspire to clarity, precision and accuracy; however, those qualities rarely come to fruition in the first draft. Instead, you achieve clarity, precision and accuracy as you edit subsequent drafts of the work.
Therefore, we recommend giving yourself permission to write in a natural voice while producing your first draft. This frees you to focus on what you want to say and why, rather than fretting over exactly how you will say it.
The table below identifies and illustrates some common qualities of writing in a natural voice. It then shows how the voice can be changed later with editing. [NOTE: Some disciplines accept the use of first-person pronouns, so the first example applies only to fields where 'I', 'my', etc. are discouraged.]
|'Natural voice' quality
|Rough draft example
|Use of first-person pronouns (I / my)
|[...] My research unearthed many studies that explore treatment alternatives for patients with this comorbidity. I discovered that pharmaceutical interventions including drugs ABC and XYZ are more likely to be effective when [...]
|[...] Several treatment alternatives exist for patients with this comorbidity. Pharmaceutical interventions including drugs ABC and XYZ are recommended when [...] (Danjuma, 2017; Huang, 2022). [...]
|Framing critique as unsubstantiated opinion
|I believe Smith's interpretation of the film doesn't make sense. I think the establishing shots point to ecological themes instead of the way Smith portrays them as [...]
|Smith's interpretation of the film fails to consider the ecological motifs evidenced across the director's establishing shots. The penultimate scene, for example, opens with [...]
|Slang or casual word choices
|[Author X] says even if you have to pay someone to do nothing but social media it'll pay off in the end cause you're gonna get customers cheaper.
|Using three case studies, [Author X] illustrates how hiring a social media marketing specialist can ultimately reduce customer acquisition cost (CAC) despite the upfront salary expenditure.
|Incomplete or 'choppy' sentences
|Situation parallel to 1970s feminist movement. Grassroots activism, zines, marches, etc. Social media = immediate comms though.
|Certain aspects of the movement parallel feminist activism of the 1970s. For example, organisers lead grassroot efforts such as marches and voter registration drives, and contemporary feminist blogs are akin to 'zines' of prior eras. However, the advent of social media has allowed [...]
|Continuing professional development (CPD) helps nurses in many ways. CPD helps nurses apply inclusive practices when treating diverse patient communities. CPD also helps nurses with IT skills they need on the wards.
|Continuing professional development (CPD) in nursing spans several key areas, from inclusive communication practices to applied technologies. [...]
If you tend to pick away at your sentences, struggling to make each one sound just right before you move to the next, you might find it challenging to adopt this freer method of drafting. We encourage you to give it a try, though. When you truly accept rough drafts as works-in-progress – subject to all manner of changes and edits, later – the focus can shift to ideas and content rather than superficial phrasing concerns.
Freewriting techniques help produce raw material for essays, and they can also kickstart your writing if the work has lost momentum. Most simply, freewriting refers to writing without stopping for a set period of time (often ten minutes). No pausing to think, no backspacing, no editing: you have to move forward and keep writing until the timer goes off.
Freespeaking follows the same premise, but you speak aloud instead of writing silently. The 'Pick Your Medium' tab of this guide shares some practical techniques for using dictation/voice methods if you wish to try this.
A placeholder, as the name implies, stands in place of something else within the rough draft. Using placeholders – or related techniques such as colour-coding and notes to self – not only eases the rough drafting process, but streamlines the writing activities that follow.
Simply put, you can use a placeholder when you want to keep drafting for now, but know you need to return to a specific issue, later. Using a placeholder in your rough draft can help in two main ways:
In practice, this means that you avoid disruption and draft more continuously. When you would normally be tempted to stop and make something 'perfect' (no such thing), you instead deploy a placeholder technique and keep going.
We will first explore the literal forms that placeholders can take. We will then cover common categories of use (i.e., 'stuff you flag' via a placeholder).
Placeholders and notes to self can take whatever form makes sense to you. Here are some good options:
As we look at some common categories of placeholders, we will use the bracketed keyword technique to illustrate them. However, you could use other methods like Word comments or highlighting to indicate the same ideas.
The key thing to remember is that placeholders should make your writing life easier, not harder. With that in mind, here are some questions to consider as you develop your own placeholder techniques:
Is the method logical to you?
Is the method manageable?
Can you easily see or find your placeholders?
Does your system let you group 'like with like' and form a game plan?
Let's say your first draft of an essay is complete. The rough draft is very rough, but that's okay: editing, supplementary research, and proofreading will whip the essay into shape. Great! But...where do you start? What needs to be done?
While drafting, we give our memories more credit than we should. Problems feel obvious to us in the moment, so we assume they will be just as obvious later on. (Spoiler: they won't be.)
This is where placeholders come to the rescue, providing a great starting point to address editorial concerns like these:
You will make changes, additions, and cuts unrelated to your placeholders, of course, but reviewing and grouping your placeholders can help you form a re-drafting and editing game plan (i.e., first, I'll do supplementary research on ABC and XYZ; next, I'll synthesize that new info into the draft; then, I'll fact-check...).
Placeholders can be used in many writing contexts beyond academic essays: CVs, personal statements, business presentations, job performance reviews, email newsletters, wedding speeches, you name it.
In fact, we used placeholder strategies while writing the online guide you're currently reading! As shown in the below snip of the guide's overview tab, our strategies included...
These techniques allowed us to keep the rough draft of the webpage moving along. Rather than staring at a wall for 30 minutes agonising over what might make a good example of some idea, we typed '[EXAMPLE NEEDED]' and continued working on the next passage. When a good example dawned on us later, the placeholder made it quick and easy to pick back up in the correct spot.
If you are having trouble picturing how placeholders can ease the drafting process, let's have a look at one writer, 'Maria,' as she works on her dissertation two different ways. Click below to expand the first scenario:
Maria has started drafting her dissertation but isn't getting much written so far. She has two hours to write this afternoon. She types one sentence, then types another: 'I will use an intersectional and mixed-methods approach to insure the data is fair.' She re-reads it: insure? Is that right? She pulls up Google and searches 'insure or ensure.' The first hit adds 'assure' to the mix, too! Ugh. She reads the article and decides 'ensure' is correct – but the article is on an American site, maybe it's different in the UK? She finds a UK website and, yes, it's supposed to be 'ensure.'
But now she's worried about a bigger problem: isn't 'intersectional' related more to theories she's using, whereas 'mixed-methods approach' is about her data analysis? Is she supposed to talk about those in the same sentence? Well, last week she read a study that used mixed methods, so maybe she can read that and see how they framed it. She opens EndNote...nope, not that article...not that article...not that article...okay, there it is. Except the article doesn't say anything about theories in the introduction: is Maria doing this totally wrong?
She also wrote 'I will use,' and she can't remember if her supervisor said she should or shouldn't use the first-person for her dissertation, so she pulls up Blackboard and starts digging through folders to see if there's a handbook or something. Eventually she remembers that information was shared via email, not Blackboard, so she opens Outlook. Before she can find the email from her supervisor, Maria sees an email she sent to herself yesterday, with an article attached that she thought could be relevant to her dissertation. She opens the article and starts reading it...then keeps reading it...then remembers to search for that supervisor email...but nope, she can't find it. Forget it. She pulls up Word again and deletes the whole sentence.
At the end of Maria's two-hour 'rough drafting' session, she has written precisely...one sentence.
Maria probably doesn't feel great about that writing session. She bounced between many discrete activities in the writing process: rough drafting, proofreading, researching, analyzing assignment parameters, more researching, etc.
Some writers can get the work done while bouncing around in this way, but for many of us, it's more efficient to identify the nature of each writing session and stick to it. For example: 11:00-12:00 is rough drafting; 12:00-13:00 is lunch; 13:00-14:30 is research time; break; 15:00-16:00 is rough drafting.
What if Maria were to use some placeholder techniques? Click below to see how that might work.
Maria has started drafting her dissertation but isn't getting much written so far. She has two hours to write this afternoon. She types one sentence, then types another: 'I will use an intersectional and mixed-methods approach to insure [W.C.] the data is fair.' Maria can't remember if first-person pronouns are permitted, so she highlights that phrasing. She always mixes up insure and ensure, so she adds 'W.C.' for 'word choice.' She will check on those things later.
She knows she needs to expand on those ideas, so she continues typing, 'In terms of the project, intersectional refers to the theoretical lenses I am applying. I will analyse the interviews through not only a feminist lens [SPEC?] but the social model of disability, too, which posits that [QUOTATION/CITATION].' The 'SPEC' note is a placeholder because Maria is deciding between two particular theorists: she'll get more 'SPECIFIC', later. She remembers circling a short but helpful definition of the social model of disability in an article, but she doesn't want to get distracted pawing through EndNote, so she adds a placeholder and keeps writing...and keeps writing...
At the end of Maria's two-hour rough drafting session, she has written five paragraphs.
Maria should feel great about this writing session! She will need to revisit those five paragraphs and do considerable editing, later, but the point to remember is that you can't improve what doesn't yet exist.
Moreover, the placeholder and colour-coding techniques that Maria has deployed will make it easier to coordinate her approach to editing. She can group related placeholders (e.g. notes to cite some literature; notes to check word choice; etc.) and focus on one similar set of actions at a time, making the process efficient.
With written assignments, don't think in terms of one big goal, i.e., 'Finish and submit essay by 15th January.' Instead, use mini-goals to ensure you are making enough progress to hit incremental or staggered deadlines.
Mini-goals when rough drafting are generally quantity-based, time-based, or content-based. On this page, we'll explore how those goal setting options work, including the potential benefits and drawbacks; then we will cover ways to hold yourself accountable to goals.
With this approach, you aim to draft a certain number of words, lines/sentences, paragraphs, or pages per writing session or per day. If a 1,500-word essay is due in a few weeks, for example, you could research during the first week, then draft 300 words per day (Monday to Friday) in the second week. This would give you a 1,500-word rough draft, with one more week remaining to re-draft and edit.
If typing your rough draft, you can use 'word count' features to track your progress. If writing by hand, a paragraph or page target will be easier to follow.
With this approach, you aim to rough draft for specific amounts of time. Plan your week in advance, setting realistic goals for each day by considering your other obligations, where you will be, anticipated energy levels, etc.
If you will be drafting for an hour or more, use a Pomodoro timer to break the time goal into shorter chunks with breaks between. For example, 'two hours of drafting' could be reframed as 'four 25-minute Pomodoro cycles.' See the quick video below for an explainer on this technique.
Students can use content-based goals for any assignment, but this method becomes crucial with extended writing at the postgraduate level. Why? Simply put, the bigger a writing project is, the more likely you are to stare at the blank page and say, 'I have no idea what to write today.'
It's important to develop a solid outline or mind map for this method because you build your mini-goals around achieving specific 'moves' or tackling specific content/ideas. That word 'specific' is key, as you can see in the examples below:
BAD content-based goal: In today's writing session, I will work on my literature review.
GOOD content-based goal: In today's writing session, I will synthesize three different scholars' definitions of the term 'viral marketing.'
Just reading the first goal feels overwhelming: 'work on' is vague, and 'literature review' is far too broad to provide meaningful direction. The revised goal specifies the move the writer will make: synthesis (i.e., critically weaving together multiple sources). Additionally, it specifies the content/idea the writer will cover: the definition of 'viral marketing.'
To reiterate, content-based goals won't work unless you have some idea where the writing is headed, so invest time in invention and organisation activities.
If you are one of those magical people with a magically healthy sense of magical self-motivation...well, good for you! Skip this section. For the rest of us mere mortals, sticking to our writing goals can be a challenge. Here are some ideas to help:
It's easy for 'work on rough draft' to get bumped down, down, down your priority list until suddenly the essay is due...tomorrow. Drafting goals shouldn't be loose intentions that float invisibly around your head: they should be recorded and scheduled. Add your drafting sessions to the calendar you use most, and set up alarms and reminders.
Know thyself, know thyself, know thyself: what distracts you when you're trying to draft? Identify the distractions, and do everything you can to eliminate or mitigate them. For example, if social media's siren call always gets to you, stop trying to succeed with willpower alone: leave your phone in a library locker or give it to a trusted friend until your writing session is over. See the 'Pick Your Medium' tab of this guide for more suggestions on tailoring how you write.
In the 'Set the Scene' tab of this guide, we discuss drafting with an accountabili-buddy or writing group. It can be so helpful if you need to 'show up' not only for yourself, but for peers. For extra motivation, create a shared document where each of you log progress towards your drafting goals; this can be as basic as a table of the weekdays where you type 'Y' if you met the goal or 'N' if you didn't. Give encouragement, get encouragement: everyone wins.
This is a simple one, but it feels great: create a way to visually mark each goal you hit. Tap into your inner child and slap gold star stickers onto the calendar. Draw a thermometer on a piece of paper with the word-count total at the top; colour it in each day as you creep closer to the goal. Put each mini-goal in the To-Do app and relish in that 'ping' sound when you mark it complete.
Cultivate a little ritual that tells your brain, 'It's time to write.' Buy a special tea or coffee that you only brew for writing. Or designate an ugly (but oh-so-comfy) jumper your official 'Making Words Happen Jumper.' Or do some sun salutations while singing 'Wrecking Ball' at the top of your lungs. It doesn't have to be dignified: it's your writing ritual.
Rewards that are contingent on perfection tend to be demotivating, so if you try this route, do reward yourself for a 'pretty okay' job: 100% goal-hitting is not realistic. Did you hit most your goals in a week? Perhaps you and your partner agree to binge some bad reality TV on the weekend. Complete your rough draft well ahead of the deadline? Treat yourself to an at-home spa day, or watch some rugby at the pub. For some people, it works to intersperse mini-rewards while writing, i.e., 'For every 45 minutes I draft, I'll give myself 15 minutes of TikTok.'
You can mix and match categories of rough drafting goals to create goals that are SMART: Specific, Motivating, Attainable, Relevant, and Trackable.
Writers who thrive within familiar routine may benefit from finding the goal style that works for them, then sticking with it. Individuals who respond better to variety may benefit from rotating between goal styles if one approach starts to feel stale.
Drafting goals can also evolve throughout the academic year. For example, a postgraduate researcher might respond well to primarily time-based drafting goals for much of the year. However, in the two months preceding a progression review deadline, they might layer on additional elements to build SMART drafting goals tailored to the submission requirements.
When it comes to writing medium, your best bet is to experiment with various options. Most students default to typing in digital documents, but this isn't the only way to produce a rough draft.
Below, we will explore common drafting mediums and tools in terms of pros (i.e., benefits some writers will experience) and words of caution (i.e., potential 'cons,' many of which can be mitigated).
Though you might settle on one preferred medium, many writers like a 'mix and match' approach. The medium that works best varies with a range of factors from day to day: how distracted you feel; your energy levels; your location; how open or busy your schedule is; your confidence in the content; the aims of the drafting at hand; whether you feel 'blocked'; and more.
If you are working on an extended piece of writing such as a thesis or dissertation, it can be especially beneficial to vary your writing medium. Approaching words in a different way can motivate or reengage us when a project starts to feel tedious.
What does 'university student writing an essay' look like? Several students gathered together in the library, each working on their laptops and pausing to chat now and then? A lone student sat in a bustling café, scribbling in a notebook?
We encourage you to experiment with your writing practice when it comes to environment, from when and where you write, to whether you write alone or amidst others. This page will help you set your scene for productive rough drafting.
It is surprising how influential having some company – or having no company at all! – can be on our writing activities. For example, some writers find it easiest to rough draft in a public study area alongside friends, but better to edit at home alone. Other writers prefer the opposite! Test out different combinations to figure out what works for you.
Environment goes hand in hand with company. You want to feel physically comfortable, but not so comfortable you fall asleep; you want to feel mentally stimulated, but not to the point of distraction. Here, we consider how factors in the environment influence your senses of focus and inspiration.
Small adjustments can make any environment work better for you if you take time to reflect on which factors are making the drafting feel easier and which factors are hampering you. For example...