Placeholders in the First Draft

When I was in my early twenties a psychologist told me that I had dysthymia, which is low-grade depression occurring for at least two years. Kind of like a low-grade cold all of the time. Not big enough to really stop me, but never abating either. It was a relief to hear this because before that point I didn’t have a name for how I felt.

Finding the right word to describe something is important when it comes to your health. Ditto with writing.

At the same time you don’t want to get so perfectionistic that you lose your flow, especially during a first draft.  After all, you likely are going to cut your first few chapters anyway. At least if you are me. My plots never really get going until chapter three or four or even five or six. With my current WIP, I just chopped off sixty pages! Ouch and also—so satisfying.

Anyway, if you get too attached to your word-smithing during the first draft, it can be especially daunting to cut your “darlings” later, even when it doesn’t serve your story.

During a first draft, my advice would be to plow on, but if you’d like to mark words or phrases that appear tired or generic as placeholders, you can go back and change them later. Here are some examples of typical placeholders verbs:

Nod—sure sometimes people nod but not all of the time. Sometimes when I read my WIP my characters are acting like those little bobble headed dolls people stick on their dashboards. Try to find other physical actions that are more specific and reveal more about motivation.

Smile—yes, characters need to smile. But usually you’re just trying to show that they’re happy. What are other ways that a character can reveal their happiness? But if you absolutely must have your character smile, just what kind of smile? A smirk? Are they beaming? Grinning? Leering? Try to be specific and add some details. I bet you can!

Frown–this is the flip side to smile. And everything I would say about smile, I would say about frowning.

Laugh–this is obviously related to the smile issue. And my advice is the same. And whatever you do, don’t use laugh as a dialogue tag.  For example, avoid this: “Do you really mean that,” laughed Hillary. Instead: “Yes, I do.” She laughed.

Walk—okay, it’s true. Your characters need to move from one room to another, but how do they walk? Do they shuffle? lollygag? Slink? Lope? Bounce? Clonk? There is so much you can say about a subject via the verb you select.

During the writing process of a first draft, you might feel agitated seeing all those spots that you have circled. But don’t despair. If you put the manuscript down for a few weeks or more, you’ll forget about some of the sweat and toil.

And you’ll also be able to appreciate all of those wonderful sentences.

Meanwhile, keep writing!



Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). And her nonfiction picture book, If You Were a Princess: True Stories of Brave Leaders From Around the World is a look at historical and current princesses from many diverse lands who have made their mark (Simon & Schuster, August 2022). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University. In the summer, she teaches in the graduate program in children’s literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy.

She can be found at and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.


Hillary Homzie