The hardest part of sitting down to write anything - whether it's a term paper, a legal brief, an article, or a novel - is often the first sentence. You fret over it even as you write it. (I know I do.) The fear that you're heading down the wrong path or that you've completely lost your way can make you erase it even before you dot the first period. (Again, guilty as charged.) Even after you've laid out your first sentence and have moved on to those that follow, and even if you finish your draft and pick up your red pen and start editing, it's the first sentence - again! - that you'll be marking up first. And if you're anything like me, there's no part of your work that you'll examine with greater scrutiny.
The First Time is Always the Hardest
With this much pressure front-loaded whenever we write, it's hardly a surprise how often we leave things unfinished. For every person who has written a first draft of a novel, there are many more who have started a novel and never finished, and even more who, though they've thought a great deal about writing a novel and may have an excellent idea for one, never actually sat down to begin it. Even when the composition at hand is something shorter like a paper or memorandum, the going is always hardest at the beginning - which may be why so many of us put things off until the very last minute, facing the initial hurdle only when there's no other option.
Know the Rules of the Game
The first step toward successfully writing your first draft is to make sure you're familiar with the rules of the work you're writing. Granted, many of the greatest writers have discovered and exemplified that nearly every rule of writing can (and, at times, should) be broken. But to break the rules effectively - and to know precisely when to do so - you first need to learn them. If you're writing a paper for a class, know what the instructor expects of you. If you're working on a short story to submit to a literary magazine, familiarize yourself with their guildlines - and even look at a few example stories that have already been published there. Being aware of what expected of you will help to keep your initial draft within its proper bounds, and will even make your job easier as you revise it toward its final form.
Set Realistic Expectations
To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, the first draft of anything is excrement. (His exact wording invokes a synonym of the four-letter kind.) While there certainly are exceptions to Hemingway's pronouncement, acknowledging the fact that the first draft will never be as good as the final product gives you the breathing room necessary to actually write your first draft. Give yourself the lattitude to make mistakes. Sometimes what may seem to be a mistake at first can lead you to discover something new and ingenious. And if the mistake in question turns out to be just that - a big, fat mistake - well, that's what second (and third, fourth, etc.) drafts are for. If you're deadset on getting it all right on the page the first time, then you've already denied your writing its best chance to come alive.
Remember: It Takes Scaffolding To Build a Building
When counseling other writers on their drafts, I've often used the analogy of writing as a kind of architecture. If you think of the work you're trying to write as a building under construction, then it's best to conceive of the first draft as both the barest structure of the building and, even more importantly, the scaffolding that surrounds it. Yes, it can seem a little ramshackle. Yes, it is often an eyesore. But it's a necessary step in the building process. And, most importantly of all: it's always temporary. No will remember the ugly gavanized metal bars and shabbily splintered wooden planks once the dust settles and your building is complete. All you have to do is remember to take down the scaffolding when it's no longer needed. After all, the scaffolding isn't there for the end user's benefit; it's there for the builder's. In writing, taking down the scaffolding is called editing - and again, it's what second (third, etc. ad infinitum) drafts are for. If you allow your revised drafts to do their jobs, you'll give your first draft the room it needs to fulfill its role as well.