How To Write Your First Draft (The Scribe Method)
“You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain.”
The Scribe Method
The idea behind the Scribe Method is very simple: instead of facing a blank page and typing your first draft, you get your first draft down by speaking it out loud. You record yourself, then get the recording transcribed. You then edit that transcript into the first draft.
This will not get you to a final draft, but it substantially accelerates the writing process.
This method is an updated version of the old way books used to be written: they were dictated to professional scribes.
If you know you want to do it this way, skip down to “How To Use The Scribe Method.”
If you still aren’t sure, and need some convincing, read the next section.
Why Do It This Way?
Writing is challenging for most people.
It’s not because they are stupid or lazy or unskilled. It’s because writing requires deep, specialized skill. The writing skill is a totally different skill from having intelligence, wisdom, experience, or knowledge to share.
Think about it: How many intelligent and accomplished people do you know who have all kinds of things to say, but hate writing?
Quite a few, I am sure (you might even be one).
The inverse is true, as well. How many skilled and experienced writers have you read who use lots of beautiful words to effectively say nothing? Sadly, that might describe the majority of professional writers.
Writing is a specific cognitive skill that is totally distinct from thinking and acquiring wisdom. Just like the ability to do math in your head is a skill distinct from being a good mathematician (Richard Feynman, the brilliant quantum physicist, often used calculators), or the ability to read sheet music is not a necessary skill to be a great musician (Jimi Hendrix, the legendary guitarist and performer, couldn’t read sheet music), writing has nothing to do with anything other than the ability to write.
This begs the question: Is the skill of writing really a necessary part of sharing knowledge and ideas?
After all, if the ultimate goal of a book is to share your knowledge and ideas with the world, is there another way to record this wisdom without having to physically write it down yourself?
Of course there’s another way to share knowledge and wisdom: by talking.
Talking is the most natural way to communicate ideas and information between humans.
We’ve been talking for at least 150,000 years, but we’ve only been writing for about 10,000 of those.
Think about people with dyslexia. Some of the smartest, most accomplished people on earth— Richard Branson, for example—can barely write an email. Branson is not stupid, nor is anyone else just because they have dyslexia. Those with dyslexia are never able to efficiently develop writing and reading functions.
Simply put, some human brains are not optimized to read or write text, but we are all optimized to talk and listen. Richard Branson can’t write, but he can absolutely talk.
In fact, most of human knowledge throughout antiquity was shared and recorded through oral history.
For most people, talking is easier than writing, but that still leaves the work of turning the talking into a book. Is there a way for a person to talk about their wisdom and ideas, instead of writing them down, and use that talking as the basis for the book?
Yes, of course there is, and people have been leveraging this method throughout history. Here’s a very short list of people whose words still move the world, yet they never wrote anything down:
- Socrates never wrote anything down, Plato recorded his words.
- Jesus Christ… never wrote down a word, the Apostles (like Paul) did.
- Buddha never wrote any of his teachings, his disciples did.
- Marco Polo told his cellmate about his travels while they were in jail, and his cellmate (who was an actual scribe) wrote them down.
- Dostoyevsky dictated his novels to his wife, who wrote them down.
- Winston Churchill dictated most of his writing to his secretary.
- Malcolm X dictated his iconic autobiography to journalist Alex Haley.
For thousands of years, writing was a specific job, different from thinking. People who did the writing were called “scribes,” and they were not themselves the esteemed thinkers and influencers of their era (what we would now call a “thought leader”). They were considered artisans with particular skills, like those of lawyers or mechanics.
Take one of the most prolific authors of the Roman age, the great Julius Caesar. He used scribes to record almost every single line in all of his letters and books.
Why did he use scribes instead of writing them himself?
For the obvious reason: his time was too valuable to be spent mastering the skill of writing words so they read properly on the page.
Julius Caesar spent his time thinking and doing things, not writing.
Caesar had scribes record his thoughts as he spoke them out loud, and then he signed his name to them. His volumes of letters and correspondences are all rightly authored by him, yet he “wrote” none of the actual words down.
That’s why we advocate the scribe process for some people: it works, it saves time, and it even generally makes for better writing. It is how many of history’s most important figures recorded their wisdom for posterity.
In summary, the reasons you might want to use this method:
- Much easier: it gets you a very rough draft to edit in about 30 percent of the time it will take you to write a first draft.
- Much faster: saves you the time and anxiety of contending with a blank page.
- Makes a better book: it forces you to teach your knowledge in a way that is reader-centric.
Who Should NOT Use The Scribe Method?
Here are the main reasons not to use the Scribe Method:
- You’re used to writing: You’re used to writing–i.e., “thinking through your fingers”–and learning a new method would be counter productive at this point. A number of professional writers are like this (myself included).
- You don’t know the topic well: You don’t actually know your topic well enough to teach it out loud yet. In essence, you have to figure out your book as you write it. This is also common for writers, but less common for the authors we work with.
- You’re afraid of a new method: There is nothing wrong with being uncertain about a “new” method. If you feel more confident with the methods you know better, then use them.
Again, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to write a book. The right way is the way that works for you and that ultimately results in a published book.
How To Use The Scribe Method
The Scribe process is very simple: instead of writing down the first draft, you take the outline and record yourself speaking through it, as if you were teaching your knowledge to someone or giving a lecture. Then you get it transcribed, and then use that transcription as the foundation of your rough draft.
Step 1: Prepare to Record Your Audio
Technology makes the logistics of recording your content incredibly easy. There are an infinite number of ways to record yourself and a number of services you can use to get that recording transcribed.
Your computer or iPhone has a built in recorder. You can use that easily.
We recommend one service specifically, simply because they make everything so simple: Rev.com. The cost is $1 per minute, which is standard in the industry.
There is also an app called Temi that uses AI to transcribe, and it’s only $0.10 per minute. The quality is lower than human transcription, but considering it’s 90 percent cheaper, that’s a worthwhile option as well.
Because you are going to have your recording transcribed, be sure to create a quality audio file that will produce a clean and complete transcript. That means no background noise (like side conversations), and a good enough microphone, placed close to your mouth, to cleanly capture everything you say. You don’t need anything fancy—iPhone earbud microphones are great.
This should be obvious, but only record one chapter at a time, and one chapter per audio file. This makes the transcripts easy to manage.
For a final book of 30,000 words, you’ll have around 10-12 chapters, and should aim for six to eight hours of interview recording. This means about 30-45 minutes per chapter.
Obviously, you won’t be able to do this all in one sitting. It is important that you divvy out the length and make sure to get enough interview material for each chapter.
Step 2: Tips for recording your rough draft
Here are some tips and ideas to keep in mind while you are delivering your first draft—all strategies we’ve found to be true in the past:
A. Frame it as teaching
Think about who the ideal audience is for this book, and then pretend that you are talking to them. Go back to your avatar. If you can picture a real person you know who fits that mold, that will make this even easier.
Anticipate what this reader will be most interested in, what they would want to know next, and what questions they would have.
Be as thorough as humanly possible—even if it seems ridiculous—with the details of your instructions or inquiries. Make sure not to gloss over any steps or rungs in the ladder leading up to your conclusion, even if they seem trivial or self-evident, because the reader won’t fully understand unless you explain everything.
B. Stay with the outline
Your outline is sequential for a reason; don’t just move through it randomly from point to point. Stay with the outline and on the point you mean to make. Remember, this is the foundation of the first draft, so the more you stay with the outline and on track, the easier it will be for you to use the transcript to write the book. You may realize you want to add or subtract information at some point down the line. That is precisely what later drafts are for. For now, stick with the outline.
C. Explain everything completely
If you were lecturing simply to make your point, you could do it very quickly. But that’s not the point of you speaking. You are teaching so the eventual reader will learn.
Your goal is to get a full, complete explanation out—far more than you probably need—so when you sit down to write out the book from your audio transcription, everything is there. The book needs to contain enough information to explain the concepts to uninformed, as well as informed, readers.
More is almost always better than less, so please say everything that comes to mind on the current point, especially anything you think is relevant. Don’t worry about phrasing things eloquently, explaining everything perfectly on your first try, or not rambling. Substance matters more than style; you only need to worry about getting the substance right. It’s much easier to cut words than to add words in places where you don’t explain enough.
If you feel like you’re being too obvious, always remember this quote by Nina Paley:
“Don’t be original; be obvious. When you state the obvious, you actually seem original.”
Creating Your Rough Draft From The Transcript
Once you get the transcript of your audio recording from the transcription service, you will start the process of “translating” that audio transcript into book prose, which will be your first draft. Here’s how to you take the raw transcript and turn it into a rough draft:
Step 1: Organize Your Chapters
If you recorded each chapter as its own audio file, then you will get them back from the transcriptionist in their own separate Word files.
The easiest we’ve found to edit these is this method:
- Create a new document (in Word or Google Docs)
- Copy and paste the outline sections from each chapter at the top of the corresponding chapter transcript
- Paste the entire audio transcript for each chapter below the chapter outline
This gets you the chapter structure up top and work on the audio transcript right below it.
Step 2: “Translate” The Audio Transcript Into Book Prose
Once you have each chapter organized, you’re going to “translate” your audio text into book prose. This is not as challenging as original writing, since the words and ideas are there.
But this is important: this is not editing. You will need to re-write the transcript in most cases.
There are a number of ways to do this, but there is one process that is most effective for us. It’s counterintuitive, but the trick is to go slowly in order to finish more quickly. These are the exact steps we recommend going through for each chapter:
We use a two-document process. One open document that is the transcript in. The other is the manuscript draft. You should “read, digest, write,” shifting attention from transcript to manuscript.
We recommend you go paragraph by paragraph, rewriting each one transcription passage onto the manuscript.
The point is you need to physically type your new chapters, paragraph by paragraph. DO NOT just edit the existing chunks of raw transcription.
Why not just edit the transcription directly?
Because writing this way is MUCH easier than editing your transcription into writing that reads well on the page.
There’s a tendency to want to turn off your brain and use exactly what you say in the transcription, verbatim. This leads to the need for a LOT of editing, and ends up making the process pretty painful.
Once you get your transcript back, you’ll see that transcribed audio is not written English. It’s not even close. Attempting to edit it will drive you crazy. It’s much better to read and absorb the spirit of what each paragraph of transcript is trying to say, and then start fresh with sentences that make sense on the page.
This is essentially translating from one medium, audio, to another, writing.
Of course, there will be places where you can almost exactly use your words from the transcript. When that happens, it’s great, and it makes your job easier. But for most people, this won’t happen often.
Note: In some cases, this may include adding content that isn’t in the transcript. Some ideas require some expansion to connect properly. You will need to add transitions or connections that aren’t part of the transcript. This is totally fine, of course. They’re your ideas, after all.
If this gets hard, and it will, just keep going. This is where it’s easy to give up. You’ll regret it if you do.
Again, don’t worry about being perfect, as you’re going to come back and do an edit later. This is just getting the first draft done.
You’re getting something down that you can come back to and perfect later.