Six reasons you should be writing terrible first drafts

Six reasons you should be writing terrible first drafts
October 31, 2016 Beth Nyland

My library of books about writing expands every year, but no writer on writing has shaped and affirmed my writing process like Anne Lamott. In Bird by Bird, in a chapter called “Shitty First Drafts,” Lamott liberated me with these words:

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

I was already creating shitty first drafts; but I didn’t trust them. If I were a “good” writer, wouldn’t the words pour forth in perfect order?

Lamott taught me that my terrible first drafts are not just okay; they are necessary.

I pass her wisdom along to every writer I coach or train or advise, whether they’re writing at work, starting a blog, contemplating a memoir, or simply keeping a journal.

You have to start somewhere. So start with a mess. Write a stream-of-consciousness-style draft. Silence your inner critic. Don’t edit, reorganize, second-guess, or fact-check. It doesn’t have to be good.

Why is it good advice to write a bad draft?

1. Writing nonsense is fun.

Giving yourself permission to put anything on the page gives you a helluva lot of latitude. You can write anything. Describe your worst nightmare, vent about your in-laws, list the reasons you don’t want to write. Eventually, you’ll run out of nonsense and tap into what you really have to say. Meanwhile, you can lighten up and enjoy the ride.

2. Setting aside perfection makes way for inspiration.

When you’re not hung up on commas, subject-verb agreement, and consistent tense, your attention is free to catch those fireflies of brilliance that flit through your consciousness when you’re on a roll.

3. You increase your chances of writing something good.

The more you show up at the page, the more shit you write, the more chances you have to maybe say something meaningful.

4. Editing becomes a critical clean-up mission.

Writing poorly doesn’t hurt your credibility; publishing bad writing does. If you’ve allowed yourself the freedom of a shitty first draft, then you can be sure your work is riddled with errors. Not wanting a mistake to slip past the “send” button, you will treat the revision process like a high-stakes scavenger hunt, where you root out every error or shortcoming that could tarnish your reputation.

5. You learn.

You learn that writing takes time, and that you have time to write. You learn that writing is hard, but you can do it. You learn to see your thoughts in black and white, in front of you—where you can work with them—instead of keeping them locked inside your head. The more you learn, the more you know. And the more you know, the more you grow. (Cliché? Yes. But oh so true.)

6. You become a writer.

You know what makes someone a writer? Writing. And when you write a first draft—even if it’s an utter disaster—that’s what you’re doing. So for heaven’s sake, lighten up and enjoy the practice!

Write something awful.

Only one person needs to see your terrible, horrible, no good, very bad draft: YOU. So if you’re agonizing to satisfy someone’s lofty expectations for perfection, stop. Lower your expectations this instant.

Write like a professional: write something awful.


Photo credit: Barbara Mazz via flickr

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