How to turn a good topic into a great first draft


Written by

Laura Bosco

The featured image for this blog post.

Note: This post is another peek inside our company playbook. We've also published how we choose content topics, how we edit first drafts, and what you should know if you're creating your own playbook.

Overview: Not sure how to translate what's in your brain into a first draft? This page will help. It covers turning a content idea into a ready-for-review draft.

What's on this page:

What goes into a first draft?

What goes into a first draft? If you're not a writer, more than you think. A good first draft usually includes:

Here's how to do each of those.

How to create a detailed outline

"Process is one of those things that in many parts of life I consider hopelessly boring and mind-numbing. Like peeling the skins of raw tomatoes. Or scrubbing dirts from beets. But in writing, process is necessary, because you need a road map to get you to where you need to be." Ann Handley, Everybody Writes

Once you've got a topic and you know it's a good one, you might be tempted to word vomit all over the paper. DON'T*. Create a detailed outline instead.

(*Unless you're a seasoned writer with a track record of producing amazing pieces using this approach.)

Why? An outline forces you to slow down and consider:

And a detailed outline forces you to consider:

So, how do you outline?

Where to start your outline

We use a template that's a mix between a creative brief (something content marketers give writers to define an assignment) and a traditional outline (a rough sketch of the article).

Here's the first page of the template, which is mostly "setting the stage" information. This page is similar to a creative brief:

And here's the second page. It helps you translate the first page into a coherent outline.                                                            

 👉 Here's a link to this template

How to use the outline template

Once the team reviews and approves your outline, you can move on to research.

Researching before you write

As you outline, you'll probably identify some things you'll need to research. For example:

If you didn't identify any of these bullets, go back and check your outline—see any research opportunities now?

Research tips

Depending on how well you know the topic (and how well we've covered it in our archives), research may take you an hour or less. Or, it may take you 5-10 hours. The latter is often the case with pieces like teardowns and case studies.

Much like other parts of writing, there's no one "right" way to research. But here are a few tips that may help:

But, where do I look?

You can look just about anywhere. Here are some useful starting points:

Shaping a lump of clay

"There is no one way to write—just as there is no one way to parent a child or roast a turkey. But there are terrible ways to do all three." Ann Handley, Everybody Writes

Once you've gathered a bit of research, it's time to shape everything into a somewhat coherent lump of content.

I like to think of it this way:

Let's talk through shaping your hunk of clay.

Drafting tips

If you have a detailed outline and a pile of research, you're off to a great start. The next trick is gluing your butt to a chair and writing the draft. Please know even the best writers find drafts intimidating, so you're in good company if this makes you a tad nervous. Here are some tips for writing your initial draft:

Once you have your shitty first draft down on paper, you can do a bit of self-editing to turn it into a pretty good second draft.

Self-editing and why it matters

"Humor comes on the rewrite. So do the best analogies, the clearest construction, the best writing—period." Ann Handley

Ideally, you'll have someone else review what you've written before you publish. But before you hand over your piece to that person, you want to do some self-editing.

Why bother with self-editing?

How to self-edit

Regardless of how well or how much you write, here are steps you can take to improve your shitty first draft.

Helpful tools

Once you've made the improvements above, it's time for a final proofread. Use the two free tools below to correct simple grammar mistakes and improve sentence structure:

If you use these tips and resources, you'll have turned your shitty first draft into a good second draft. And from there, an editor can turn it into an excellent ready-to-publish third draft.

One last tip...

It's easy to self-edit your work into infinity. So, it's very useful to know when you've gotten as far as you can. In the self-editing process, you're going to hit a point of diminishing returns and, beyond that, a point of negative returns:


I've found the point of diminishing returns is a good time to hand my draft over to an editor or team member for review (that is, if the deadline hasn't arrived first!). This is because I'm not going to make much more progress as is—I've started spinning my wheels in the mud, and I either need a long break from the piece (a good option) or another set of eyes to make the piece better (the best option).

The better you get at recognizing your own point of diminishing returns, the more efficient you'll become at drafting.

Laura Bosco is a writer and people person. She helps tech startups do tricky things, like explain who they are and what they're doing. Ping her on Twitter to say hi.