Finding Clarity: The Value of Writing a Discovery Draft

My student, a high school senior stared at the paper in front of him, then up at me, then back down at his paper before dropping his head in his hands with all the drama of an annoyed seventeen year old, and mumbled, “What do I even do with this? I don’t know how to fix it this one.”

“Sooo,” I said gently, “What if you don’t fix this one? What if, now that you have an idea of what you want to say, we make an outline and start over?”

He snapped his head up as he stared at me in horror. “But…I already wrote this. You think I should just trash it? No way.” He shook his head adamantly. “Nope. I’m not writing this again. I’ll fix it.”

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Me and my student – I see the possibilities; he sees a pile of work!

Fixing it is what he’d tried on his first paper which ended up, literally, in the trash. He did not want to be a writer who writes discovery drafts, but much to his chagrin…he is. My next job is to convince him that this is not a bad thing – it just is what it is.

The Value in a Discovery Draft

The inadvertent writing of discovery drafts doesn’t just happen with tentative young writers. I had a similar conversation with a client that same week.

She’s a fabulous writer and brilliant thinker who’d submitted almost 25 pages of a first draft of a chapter. Like my student, her draft landed solidly in the land of what I call a “discovery draft.”

You may have heard these called “shitty first drafts,” a term Anne Lamott termed in her book Bird by Bird.

I don’t love that term because these drafts aren’t shitty. They’re incredibly valuable. This is the draft that helps you figure out what you think, what your point is.

They’re often rambling and even can feel a bit ranty as the writer repeats themselves to get clarity on their ideas. These drafts tend to bounce around from idea to idea as the writer’s brain makes connections and ties ideas together. This is where the “shitty” part comes in but it’s also why they have value.

A discovery draft:

  • helps you figure out your thinking and your point – what are you actually writing about?
  • allows for ideas and new insights to bubble up
  • helps you discover interesting connections between your ideas
  • gets you going

All of this is crucial to developing a solid piece of writing, whether that’s a one-two page piece like my student or a full-blown chapter in a book like my client.

The value in a discovery draft is not in the draft itself but in the thinking and creativity that comes from the process.

The challenge comes in seeing the value in that work and not holding onto the actual words that you wrote. A discovery draft often needs a deep level of revision – cutting, rearranging, and adding to achieve clarity and communicate its point.

Trying to revise pieces like this as they’re written can be way more work than creating a quick outline based on your initial draft and starting fresh.

What to do with a Discovery Draft

Once you’ve written your first discovery draft,

1) Set it aside for a few days, so you can come back to it with fresh eyes.

You may have written a fabulous piece that flows well and moves your reader clearly through your ideas and process. If you did, WOOHOO!! 

If you didn’t, you’ll be able to see that when you come back to it with fresh eyes. If you’re not sure if your chapter works, this is where a book coach, developmental editor, or even writing group can help.

If you’re still unsure, follow the next few steps to evaluate your work on your own.

2) Analyze and evaluate THE IDEAS.

Read through it with a pencil in your hand NOT to wordsmith and “fix” your sentences, but to mark and highlight the main ideas. 

One strategy is to use highlighters or colored pencils to do this work. Use one color per main idea and highlight or underline each section or sentence that relates to that main idea. You’ll probably discover a “rainbow” in your paragraphs. What you want is to have all of the same colors together, so you can have a visual representation of your ideas and how they’re scattered through your draft.

Or, take notes on your big ideas as you read.

3) Next, ask yourself the following questions for the chapter as a whole and for each section:

  • What is your overall point? What is the takeaway you want your reader to have for this chapter? for this section?
  • What do you want your reader to learn or know?
  • How do you want your reader to feel?
  • What order should this information go in to get your reader to this goal of knowing or feeling? to their desired outcome?

4) Based on what you already wrote, create a NEW outline for your chapter with sections and subsections.

For each section and subsection, answer the above questions. Use your discovery draft to help you develop and connect your ideas. Don’t let that thinking go to waste. Mine it for your best thinking.

5) Write your new draft OR revise what you’ve got

At this point, you can either start fresh or cut and paste from your discovery draft. Either can work. I recommend trying both to find what works for you. 

Finding Your Process

This is all about finding your writing process. Sometimes you need to write a discovery draft to clarify your thinking. Other times, you might find that starting with a detailed outline works best. Or sometimes, you can crank out a solid, organized first draft of a chapter based on your book outline.

None of these options are better than the others or the “right” way to do it. It’s just how you are approaching this piece of writing.

The only thing the approaches have in common is that you do need to have an understanding of the point you want to make and how you want to get your readers there.

If, after you’ve written your piece, you find that it’s a jumbled mess, use the above process to guide your revision.


If you’re unsure if it’s a jumbled mess or not, or you have no idea how to tackle it, who you gonna call? A book coach!

You do not want to write an entire book that ends up being a discovery draft. Avoiding this is why people work with book coaches and also why my Foundations Program is a pre-requisite for all of our work together.

The client I mentioned above has a clear Outcome Outline for her book, but she did not do detailed outlines for each chapter. She didn’t realize that she needed to until she started drafting. Her first chapter drafts have been discovery drafts.

We’ve discovered that she needs to write that discovery draft, to get it all out, but now that we’ve hashed through a few of them, she’s able to do it on her own. Now, I don’t need to see that early thinking work. I just need to see the outline she’s created from her discovery writing which is what we go over before she writes her actual chapter.

And she’s off and writing a fabulous book – one I can’t wait to share with you! 😉

If you’re ready to explore finally writing your own nonfiction book, book a discovery call with Amy.


  1. Meredith on September 30, 2023 at 9:34 am

    ❤️ As you know, I am still struggling to discover my process!! thank you for all of your support. Each day of discovery drafting feels like I am getting a little closer!

    I can testify to your superpower. How many times have we both gotten goosebumps during our call when you have identified the “heart of the point” I was trying to make in my ramblings!!? Then you ask me the hard question that take me to the next level. How do you show the reader so they can discover it for themselves and join you on the journey?

    The struggle is real. I’ve been blessed to have you along for the ride!

    • Amy Isaman on October 29, 2023 at 3:40 pm

      Awww – thank you!! How do you show the reader the heart of the story? You do the work you’re doing right now. You dig deep, and then go deeper, until you know the point and heart of your story. Sometimes you have to write it to find it (as you’ve discovered). Then, you have to shape and craft your story in such a way that it has a heart, that those pieces are there for the reader. I think of it kind of like Hansel and Gretel. You write and guide the reader with the elements of the story so that they relate to you, they walk in your shoes, they get it through the elements of the story, but you’re not hitting them over the head with your point, and saying, “SEE! Do you get it now?!?” You’re trusting them to find their own truth by you sharing yours.

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