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Rough Drafting: Writing

Overview of rough drafting

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.

Guide contents

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:

  • Get Words Down - Explore practical methods and suggestions to begin producing content.
  • Delegate to Future You - Learn vital strategies to maintain your momentum now and simplify your editing later.
  • Know Your Goal Style - Discover what makes a writing goal effective and how to follow through.
  • Pick Your Medium - Reflect on the benefits and limitations of writing by hand, voice dictation, apps, and more.
  • Set the Scene - Experiment with environmental factors such as company and space for maximum drafting efficiency.

Let's get started

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.

The priority: make words happen

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.

¹ King, S. (2000) On writing: a memoir of the craft. New York: Scribner.

Find your bearings

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.

  • Do your rough plans and ideas align with the stated goals?
  • Do you understand the key content/literature well enough to begin writing? (You don't need to be 100% finished with your research – focus on whether you know enough to make a meaningful start.)

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.

Tip: When you are finishing up your drafting session for the day, make a note for yourself of where you will begin the next time you sit down to write. You can also update or annotate your outline to show what you have drafted and what points still remain.

Draft in a natural voice

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 Later edit
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 [...]
Repetitive words/phrasing 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.

Tip: If you are multilingual, you can also experiment with drafting in your additional language(s). Anything goes in the rough draft, so you can even 'mix and match' languages within the same sentence, tackling translation when you edit, later.

Freewriting and freespeaking

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.

Want more? For a fuller exploration of freewriting, including patterns you can use to gamify your drafting and work through writer's block, see our dedicated freewriting guide, here.

Top tips

  • Remember that the goal of drafting is to produce content, discover ideas, and make connections.
  • Before you start drafting, revisit the assignment prompt and your planning/invention materials.
  • Give yourself permission to write the first draft in your most natural voice.
  • Consider gamifying your drafting process with some freewriting or freespeaking exercises.

An overview of placeholders

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.

How placeholders work

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:

  1. It encourages you to keep writing rather than going down a rabbit hole (i.e., getting distracted or diverted) every time an obstacle or question arises.
  2. It makes other writing activities like research and editing easier because you can sort your placeholders, like with like, and work systematically.

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.

Tip: Think of using placeholders not as an act of procrastination, but a way of strategically delegating certain writing tasks to your future self.

Forms and categories of placeholders

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). 

Typical forms

Placeholders and notes to self can take whatever form makes sense to you. Here are some good options:

  • Bracketed words or abbreviations – As you're rough drafting, add a keyword or abbreviation in brackets [[LIKE THIS]]. Boldface helps it stand out. You can CTRL+F to find the brackets '[[' anywhere in your document, so it's easy to jump from one to the next as you edit later.
  • Colour highlighting – You can highlight sentences/words that you definitely want to revisit. Develop a manageable coding system (i.e., yellow = 'wow that sentence is way too long,' blue = 'find a better word to use there,' etc.).
  • Comments or tags – You can use the 'Comment' feature in Word to leave keywords or notes to self throughout the draft. Viewing all your comments together in the editing pane makes it easy to work through them systematically, later.
  • Bullet points – You can insert a bullet point or two to mark a spot in the rough draft that needs development or additional ideas, quickly summarising what's needed alongside the bullet(s).

Common categories

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.

  • Expand/develop – This is a good one to use if you have started to present a promising idea in your rough draft, but you need to reflect a while or do more research to fully develop it [[DEV. FURTHER]].
  • Fact check – A placeholder like [[FACT CHECK]] or [[ACCURATE?]] is helpful when you must return to the literature to verify something. This lets you keep drafting while guaranteeing you will remember to double-check.
  • Add evidence – Use placeholders like this to mark claims you plan to strengthen by introducing evidence from the literature [[ADD LIT]] or a data set [[DATA NEEDED]].
  • Citation missing – Don't assume you will remember to add all your citations later. If a fact, idea, or data point in your draft requires attribution, leave a [[CITATION]] placeholder. Your future self will thank you!
  • Move 'missing' – This one reminds you to go back and add anything you skip over in the rough draft, such as transition sentences [[MISSING transit]], takeaway points, definitions of key terms, etc.
  • Phrasing and word choices – Remember, your rough draft will be full of clunky, weird sentences: that's 100% okay, so don't try to mark every sentence with a potential issue. But if a particular sentence or word is bothering you so much that you can't move on, try adding a placeholder like [[AWK]] (for 'awkward'), [[SMOOTH]] (for 'smooth out this cumbersome phrasing'), or [[W.C.]] (for 'word choice'). Flagging it will let you feel secure enough to continue drafting.

Making it work for you

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?

  • Don't work against your own instincts. For example, if using different colours to mark issues feels strange and difficult to track, that isn't your method!

Is the method manageable?

  • Aim for clarity and simplicity. Creating twenty different keyword codes is comprehensive, sure, but that system will be tough to memorise and stick to. Keep it simple and consistent.

Can you easily see or find your placeholders?

  • You shouldn't need to squint, zoom in, etc. Use abbreviations/punctuation you can 'find' via the CTRL+F shortcut, such as the double brackets in our earlier examples. If highlighting, colour enough text for it to stand out.
  • Don't make placeholders out of words or acronyms that you use frequently in the actual writing. That will complicate any 'find' searches you do.

Does your system let you group 'like with like' and form a game plan?

  • Make sure you can logically group your placeholders to simplify the next writing activities you do.

Editing's best friend

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:

  • Which claims in your draft still require data/literature to back them up?
  • Have you incorporated any attributable information that still needs to be cited?
  • What ideas or moves are missing from the draft (e.g. definitions, transitions, topic sentences, counterarguments...)?
  • Did you feel particularly unsure about any words or phrases you used in the rough draft?

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 in practice

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...

  • Keywords – We used a small selection of keyword tags including 'missing', 'image here', and 'example needed' to flag areas where copy or content still needed to be developed.
  • Emphasis – We used brackets and caps-lock to distinguish our keyword tags from the surrounding text, with blue highlighting for further emphasis.
  • Coding – We kept our coding simple, but with enough options to suit the project. Blue was only used to indicate gaps (e.g. missing text, examples, or images), for example, whereas yellow meant phrasing edits might be required.

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.

Snip of guide table of contents showing some items highlighted in yellow. Other items are followed by caps-locked 'MISSING' in brackets, highlighted blue.

Same draft, two approaches

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 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.

Top tips

  • Placeholders can help you push forward with a rough draft instead of letting perfectionism or worry win out.
  • There are different ways to use placeholders and notes to self: play around to build a system that works for you.
  • These techniques are valuable not only for producing the rough draft, but for the re-drafting and editing processes.

The power of mini-goals

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. On this page, we'll explore how goal setting options work, including the potential benefits and drawbacks; then we will cover ways to hold yourself accountable to goals.

'Goal Setting for Academic Writing' learning sequence

If you are struggling with managing your writing and getting things done, the learning sequence embedded below may help. It should take you about 30 minutes to complete, and it includes a combination of videos, recaps of key points, and small activities to help you out. There is an accessibility link if you need to adjust colour contrast, screen reader, or other features.

Alternately, check out our goal setting YouTube playlist here, or scroll down to keep reading!

Click here to view the accessible version of this interactive content

The three keys to effective writing goals

Mini-goals when rough drafting are generally quantity-based, time-based, or content-based. Read the subsections that follow to learn how to use these elements in combination.

Length/quantity-based 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.

  • PROS – Quantity goals compel you to actually write rather than sitting there overthinking. Breaking a big project like a 10,000-word dissertation into little 'chunks' (draft two paragraphs today; draft 150 words tomorrow; etc.) keeps you on track and makes the work feel more manageable.
  • CAUTION – Shift gears if too many writing sessions lead only to 'fluff' or filler material while using quantity-based goals. This might signal the need to try a different goal method; it could also mean you need to engage in more invention activities or research before rough drafting.

Time-based goals

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.

  • PROS – Time-based goals help you integrate drafting practices into your daily and weekly routine, which can gradually transform writing from 'random, stress-spiking intrusion' to 'normal habit.' Scheduling the decided goal into your calendar ups the odds that you will sit down to write during the blocked-out time. 
  • CAUTION – Shift gears if you are leaving too many so-called 'writing sessions' without having written (i.e., you 'wrote for two hours' yesterday and 'wrote for three hours' today, but have four sentences to show for it). Try combining a quantity-based or content-based goal with your time goal to remind yourself to make words happen.

Content-based goals

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.'

Tip: Use the template 'I will [move] [item/idea]' as the foundation for content-based goals. For example, 'I will [critique] [novel X's depiction of migrant workers].' Or, 'I will [summarise] [the three main components of tool XYZ].' Or, 'I will [critically compare] [theory A to theory B].' You can then refine the goal as needed.

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.

  • PROS – Building your mini-goals around writing moves and content/ideas helps keep your rough drafting relevant, making this a good choice for writers who tend to stray from the assessment brief. You enter each drafting session with a clear idea of what you need to accomplish.
  • CAUTION – An overly rigid approach to content-based goals can prevent exploration of important insights that arise when you are rough drafting, so take time to reflect between each goal in case your plan needs to evolve.

But I don't wanna... (i.e., accountability)

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:

Get it in your calendar as a real thing

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.

Set yourself up for success

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.

Lean on external accountability

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.

Visually represent your achievements

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.

Make a writing ritual

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.

Devise a reward system

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.

  • Make a goal more specific by adding a content-based detail.
  • Make a goal more motivating by adding a reward or reflecting on the positive outcomes of achieving it.
  • Make goals attainable by adapting them to match realities of your schedule and study/writing habits.
  • Make goals relevant by verifying that your planning materials reflect the assignment aims.
  • Make goals trackable with quantity-based mini-deadlines.

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.

Top tips

  • Experiment with setting goals for your rough drafting based on quantity, time, or content written.
  • Effective rough drafting goals are specific and realistic: goals that are vague or unattainable risk demotivating you.
  • Setting mini-goals with staggered deadlines is vital when working on an extended piece like a dissertation or thesis, so use shorter assessments as opportunities to refine your goal-setting skills.

Pick your medium

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).

Typing (laptop/computer)

  • THE METHOD – Log into a computer, fire up a Word doc, and get started: you know the drill!
  • PROS
    • It's simple to leave notes or placeholders in the text (see the 'Delegate to Future You' tab for more on this).
    • Fast typing = fast drafting.
    • Cloud storage enables access from any compatible device.
    • Copy/paste lets you easily shuffle content around while drafting.
    • You don't need to spend time typing it up later.
    • If you freeze up at the sight of a cursor blinking on a blank page, try typing 'It's okay if this draft is terrible' at the top of the document, in bold. Doing so is strangely liberating!
    • Long stints at the computer tire the eyes and body. Set a Pomodoro timer to remind yourself to take breaks.
    • The call of the internet can be very, very distracting. Explore productivity apps/extensions that limit notifications, or bar internet access altogether, while drafting.
    • Your work can be lost if you don't follow IT best practices. Never rely exclusively on local storage, i.e., saving the file to your desktop. Back it up via cloud storage or other options.


By hand

  • THE METHOD – You only need a pen and a notebook for this one. Project notebooks with tabbed sections are great for staying organised. You can also keep one notebook for planning/invention (outlines, mind maps, etc.) and one for drafting, then set the plan and your draft side by side while working.
  • PROS
    • Writing by hand can quiet the perfectionistic inner voice that makes drafting difficult.
    • Going device-free reduces digital distractions.
    • The ritual of sitting down with a favourite notebook and pen transitions you into a writing-focused headspace.
    • You have an excuse to buy cute stationery. (Kidding...kind of.)
    • Getting hands-on with your draft can enhance your sense of ownership and engagement.
    • You can draft in laptop-unfriendly locations (e.g. beach, forest, museum bench), with no worries about battery life and WiFi.
    • If you don't make a regular habit of typing up what you have handwritten, a backlog builds up. Create a recurring 'Transcription Time' event in your calendar; use it to type up your week's writing.
    • Notebooks can be lost, damaged, or misplaced. At the end of each drafting session, take quick pictures of your handwritten pages as an extra safeguard. Return your notebook to the same spot after every use to reduce the odds of misplacing it.
    • Notebooks aren't secure. Warning: if your drafting involves confidential information or sensitive data, you must follow the university's research data management and privacy policies.


By voice

  • THE METHOD – Many students never consider this option, but talking is, indeed, a way to write. The first variation is to record yourself talking and transcribe it later. Just use the voice memo app in your phone to record thoughts and ideas as they come to you. The second variation uses speech-to-text technology, which transcribes your words automatically as you speak. Microsoft Word has a 'Dictate' feature; other dictation software and apps are available, too.
  • PROS
    • Have you ever been frustrated because you can explain an idea in conversation, but you freeze or go blank when you try to write it down, later? Here's your perfect workaround: forget about big bad scary WRITING, and
    • Voice memos let us record flashes of inspiration wherever they occur (e.g. treadmill, bathtub, an annoyingly long queue at Nando's, the New Forest).
    • You can squeeze some writing into a busy schedule by dictating during breaks at work, on your commute, etc.
    • Writing by voice gives you a break from texting, typing, and staring at a screen.
    • If using voice memos, immediately re-name your recordings (e.g. 'fallout of financial crisis' or 'Stranger Things character analysis') to avoid creating a sea of files with names like '20230713_7623.wav.'
    • Delete each voice memo once you've transcribed it to prevent confusion. Follow the recurring 'Transcription Time' guidance in the handwriting section, above.
    • Phones can be damaged, lost, or misplaced. Change your settings so recordings back up to cloud storage.
    • If it's annoying to listen to your own voice as you transcribe, put your phone on speaker and let your computer 'listen' and type it up. You can also feed your sound files to a programme that automatically transcribes speech.


Apps and software

  • THE METHOD – To determine if exploring different digital tools/apps is worthwhile, reflect on your drafting process with questions like these:
    • Does drafting in your discipline call for mathematical formulas or other elements that a basic word processor doesn't handle well? If so, Overleaf/LaTeX might make drafting easier.
    • Are you writing a dissertation, thesis, or other lengthy work, and finding it frustrating to manage a substantial manuscript? If so, software tailored to long-form writing, such as Scrivener, might be a fit.
    • Are you prone to digital distractions while drafting, or do wish you had a cleaner interface to work in? Search for 'focus writing apps' and see what's available.
    • Do you like to dictate a lot of your content? Word does have 'Dictate,' but dedicated voice-to-text software provides more functionality.
    • Could you benefit from assistive technology when drafting? Check the university's assistive technology software guidance for more.
  • PROS
    • IT solutions exist for many logistical elements of rough drafting that we find frustrating or lacking.
    • Working in apps that make sense to you saves time and frustration.
    • Please don't mistake 'writing apps' for generative AI such as ChatGPT! When we refer to 'writing apps,' we mean apps that let you type, record, organise, store, and annotate your own writing. We are not endorsing AI that generates text for you (see the university's guidance on academic integrity and Artificial Intelligence Tools).
    • Many free writing apps exist, but others require a one-off or monthly payment. Take advantage of 7-day trials and/or free versions of apps to test them out before you commit any money.
    • All software comes with a learning curve. Give yourself adequate time to learn the ins and outs of new apps (i.e., don't launch Scrivener for the first time when your thesis is due in three weeks!).
    • Make sure it's straightforward to reformat/export your writing into the file format required for submission.


Mixing and matching

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.

Top tips

  • Reflect on your typical writing medium and whether it lets you engage with rough drafts as you would like.
  • Consider both digital and 'old school' methods to produce content: as long as it lets you put words together, it's valid.
  • Remember that switching up your writing medium can have positive results when you're feeling stuck or demotivated.

Tailoring your writing scene

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.

Pick your company

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.

Flying truly solo
  • For this option, try rough drafting when you are all by yourself. This often means drafting in your bedroom or another study area at home, but it could mean being out in nature with a notebook. Up to you!
Solo-ing among fellow solos
  • For this option, try rough drafting in a space where people nearby are also working solo: for example, study pods in the library or Building 100, a work-friendly café with lots of small tables, a computer lab, etc.
  • Writers drawn to this style don't want their work interrupted with conversation, but they do feel motivated by the awareness that everyone around them is working, too.
Pairing with an accountabili-buddy
  • For this option, find one peer to join you for drafting sessions as an accountabili-buddy (i.e., an accountability buddy). Their presence helps you stay focused, and in turn, you help them stay focused.
  • This practice helps ensure you are drafting regularly rather than procrastinating, getting distracted on your phone, etc. Read up on the concept of 'body doubling' to stay focused if this sounds appealing!
Gathering the writing group
  • For this option, draft alongside a few peers on a regular basis. Writing groups vary in size, but four to six people total tends to work well.
  • Major benefits of writing groups can include increased productivity, reduced procrastination, reduced anxiety, and an enhanced sense of community.
Tip: If you are working on an extended project (e.g. dissertation/thesis) and find you're putting off drafting and/or struggling with loneliness, give this a shot. Even a digital writing group (where students in different locations log into Teams to work 'together but separately') can help you feel more connected and motivated.
Matching task and company
  • The company (or lack thereof) that works best for you whilst rough drafting might not suit other writing activities. For example, you might draft 'solo among fellow solos' in the library but bounce ideas off peers while editing.
  • Figuring out your preferences takes trial and error. Reflect on not only your levels of productivity and focus, but your emotional and social wellbeing: after all, a tiny boost in productivity isn't worth it if you feel overwhelmed, disconnected, etc.


Reflect on environment

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.

Vast rooms, great heights, and cozy nooks
  • Compare how it feels to draft in a large, airy space with how it feels to draft in a cozier, den-like space.
  • Try drafting with visual stimuli minimised: for example, at a desk facing a wall. Then, try drafting somewhere with more action or a view: for example, sat near a window on a building's 6th floor.
Tip: When the weather is nice, try drafting outside from time to time. The Common is ideal for writing in nature.
Noise levels and types
  • Fewer writers thrive in absolute silence than you might imagine.
  • When it comes to noise, think not only about volume levels, but the qualities of what you are hearing: is the soundscape consistent or unpredictable; ambient or self-curated; musical or music-free; etc.?
  • For a quick experiment, try drafting in one of the library's designated 'quiet zones,' then try drafting on a floor that allows talking: which worked better for you?
  • A decent pair of headphones can be a great investment in your writing. Explore online options for 'white noise,' 'focus music,' 'study soundtracks,' etc.
  • Cue up recordings of actual cafes, train stations, rainforests, zoos, laundromats, and other spaces if the ambient vibe helps you concentrate.
Tip: Pay particular attention to whether hearing other people is helpful or distracting. Try instrumental music if words are distracting. Alternately, put on a boring TV show if background chatter helps you focus.
Public vs. private
  • Public spaces tend to spark a greater sense of accountability. No one in the library will come over and chastise you if you stop working, kind of feels like they will, doesn't it? Likewise, when you leave the house specifically to go somewhere and write, you feel more driven to follow through.
  • Private spaces have benefits, too. You can stretch, pace around, and talk to yourself. You can create as much writing mess as needed. No one will judge you for wearing a dragon onesie while drafting (you do you, friend). Plus, the coffee is much cheaper!
Night owls, early birds, and...midday geese?
  • Experiment with what time of day you write: again, the results may surprise you.
  • Some writers swear by drafting first thing in the morning because their minds feel clear and undistracted.
  • Other writers let their ideas incubate throughout the day and draft best at night.
  • Others, still, experience an energy spike in the afternoon that lets them focus well on drafting.
  • There is no right or wrong in terms of productivity 'sweet spots' in the day: there is only what works best for you.
Tip: Prioritise drafting during your high-productivity 'sweet spots' by shuffling other tasks to the hours when your mind feels blurrier (i.e., do your grocery shop in the morning so you can write in the evening, or delay the gym until the afternoon so you can write in the morning, and so on).
Customising environments

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...

  • If seeing people walking around, gesturing, etc. is nice but the noise is too much, try silencing headphones.
  • If the sounds of everyone typing and chattering in the library are great but you feel exposed or visually distracted, use a jacket to turn a study pod into your own little 'writing cave.'
  • If your writing group meets in a private house for the cheap snacks and 'yay we can wear onesies' factor, but the house is too quiet, take turns picking ambient soundtracks or instrumental playlists for background noise.


Top tips

  • Rough drafting doesn't need to be a solo activity: consider whether some company is a good fit.
  • Experiment with environmental variables – space, privacy, sound, time of day, etc. – to discover your individual blends for inspiration and focus.
  • Remember that different writing activities may call for different combinations of company and environment: don't be afraid to mix things up and see what works.