Zero Drafting: Falling in love again with a simple pleasure, timed writing.

Zero Drafting. I stole the term from a young adult author. I’ll have to go track her down after I’m finished writing. See that’s the point with zero drafting, the first rule: don’t stop writing. One of my college writing teachers, Darrell Spencer, taught me the method. We had to write three pages a day for his class and zero drafting was the most effective way to hit that mark. I can still hear Darrell say, in his small, hesitant voice: “kill the editor.”

That’s the second rule in zero drafting. Kill the editor. Don’t get in the way of yourself. Don’t erase, don’t cross out, don’t fix spelling, don’t stop pushing your pen forward. Zero drafting is pure writing. Revisions and edits can wait. Right now, just write.

Before the practice got branded, Natalie Goldberg referred to it simply as a timed exercise. Peter Elbow calls it freewriting and that was in vogue for a while until it was co-opted by quick writes, loaded with required topics and questions aligned with curriculum.

You hear a refrain sung by many writing teachers, in high school especially, that goes like this: our students don’t write enough. Our students need to write more than we can grade. And then guess what we do? Not write. We fret about assessing student writing or giving feedback on student writing and we ask colleagues for advice, go to workshops and conferences looking for advice. Nothing but a bunch of not writing. No one has ever learned to write by not writing.

I’ll be honest. I’ve been hot and cold with zero drafting. I once went an entire year without using it in class. My students still wrote, but we could’ve and should’ve written more. Never again, as long as I’m a writing teacher, will I deprive my students of this simple exercise.

Here’s how I do it…

…and what my students think about it (I’ll detail the benefits and outcomes later in this post):

Use a spiral or composition notebook. The cheaper the better. If it’s too fancy they’ll want to be careful what they write. Zero drafting doesn’t do careful.

Same goes for the writing instrument. I prefer the trusty Bic blue

Photo ©2008 Wikimedia Commons user Trounce. Licensed under CC-BY-SA

Use a prompt. You can get these from anywhere. I love I’m amazed at the prompts he cranks out. I try to put a week’s worth of prompts together in one sitting, but I’m always open to last minute inspiration. Prompts are great because no one can just sit there wondering what to write about.

The prompt is optional. That’s right. Don’t force them to use the prompt. It’s only there to get students started. But plenty of students don’t need prompting; they have lots of things they want to write about. I tell my students they can write journal entries, letters to friends, short stories, poems, novels, rants, reviews, wish lists, bucket lists, to-do lists. And if they run out of things to write I tell them to write their name over and over again until they think of something to write, or write about the last meal they ate. This is rarely necessary because a good prompt usually does the trick.

The prompt is mandatory (I love exceptions to rules). Sometimes. Make it mandatory sparingly. You’ll assign a prompt at the beginning of a unit, or at the beginning of a debate perhaps.

I really wish we had more than 8 minutes to write, though. sometimes I want to continue that zero draft the next day or something, but by that time I’m not able to remember what I wanted to write anymore. —Karen

Time the prompt. I usually go for eight minutes. But it’s good to throw in longer sessions occasionally. I wouldn’t do it for less than five minutes though. You’re barely getting to the good stuff at that point. Once the timer goes off I’m usually still finishing my last thought or two. Let students do the same.

You heard that right. I write with my students. Write with your students. No excuses. Just do it.

Picture 8
“Blindfold,” © 2006 Dr Case, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial license.

Don’t read their zero drafts. Not ever. Never. No! As soon as another set of eyes are on it, it’s no longer zero drafting. Students have to feel free to write whatever they please without anyone reading their work. It’s not ready yet. And please, whatever you do, don’t try to assign zero drafting some kind of grade. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little at the thought of this impulse.

The best part about zero drafting is that no one else will read it. I don’t have to worry about what others think or if what I’m writing makes sense, I can just write whatever I think. —Katherine


On your marks, get set, go! I think humans are natural procrastinators. To delay is probably the marquee problem for writers. Beginners especially. Writers are among the most skilled procrastinators. One of the biggest obstacles to writing is getting started. The blank page haunts us. But as soon as we throw down some ink on that page, the hard part is over, and it’s hard to stop.

Inspire more writing, collect more fodder. After my first zero drafting session this year I heard a student say, “I have so much more to write,” and another said, “I could go on and on.” I’m thrilled they walk out of my class feeling like they want to keep writing. And when a longer piece is assigned they’ll have a lot of writing and ideas to mine. Zero drafting kills writer’s block dead.

I don’t like that some of them are only 8 minutes! Sometimes I have so much more that I want to say and talk about! — Ashley

Force students away from the screen. Ray Bradbury imagined our addiction to and dependence on screens decades ago. It goes without saying, computers are essential tools. But they’re also great distractors. Hundreds of apps, sites, programs, tweets, and texts draw our attention elsewhere, but zero drafting cuts through the noise and keeps our nose to the page. Sure, you could probably type faster than you can write, but the physical act of gripping a pen and running it over paper has a power all its own. Sometimes the best tech is low tech.

Give students choice and voice. My summer reading really hammered home the importance of allowing students ownership of their learning. Thomas and Brown assert that “students learn best when they are able to follow their passion.” Yong Zhao says that giving students choice rather than prescribing their learning “helps preserve creativity, another quality of entrepreneurs.” Zero drafting is an easy, risk-free gateway strategy for teachers who are hesitant to turn the learning over to their students.

It’s amazing to have a non intimidating school activity where we have so much power to choose what we want to do. —Katherine, again

Practice filling the blank page. An underrated skill. If you can demolish that blank page in front of you when faced with an essay test, research paper, business report, client pitch, or letter to your local member of congress the heavy lifting seems bearable.

I’m just too tired at the end of my day to do so this activity allows me to write for a little on a daily basis. —Tiffany

Discovery. Even though the quotation comes from one of his fictional characters and not E.M. Forester himself, this line still rings true: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It’s not in any standardized standard, but learning about yourself is as worthy an outcome as I’ve ever encountered.

I also think zero drafting helps you realize things you haven’t realized before, like how much you might love a sandwich. —Calvin

It’s really making me realize all of the ideas I have about certain issues before my brain gets the chance to dismiss them for being too ‘silly’ or not well-phrased enough. I think it’s an excellent technique to help us see where our actual priorities and interests lie. —Alexis

It adds up. Students average about one page every eight minutes. They start wrapping their brains around how long writing takes and they realize it doesn’t take much. A student who decides to double their zero drafting time at home could crank out one hundred pages in little over a month. That’s a first draft of a novel.

Zero drafting allows my thoughts to consistently flow without pauses. I think that’s a lot of writing for only 8 minutes; if you think about it, you can accomplish about 10 pages of writing in 80 minutes. —Nam

Writers write. Obvious? Yes. But one of the key outcomes of part zero drafting is that students start to think of themselves as writers.

I don’t really like writing but zero drafting makes me feel free and that i can write whatever i want to without restrictions. —Christina

6 thoughts on “Zero Drafting: Falling in love again with a simple pleasure, timed writing.

  1. Nice idea. It reminds me of Jeff Anderson’s power writing–just get something on the page. Once students feel confident in writing, their fluency increases, and usually their thinking improves. Thanks for sharing. I love the term zero drafting.

  2. It is fantastic when you see students really get “into” writing. I call it a Quick Write and set a 6 minute timer and off we go. I teach lower primary (6-7 year olds) and it is amazing to see kids who are considered reluctant writers getting down a page and realising they can write.
    Thanks for the post Sean

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