Several years ago, I was visiting my sister who happens to have a great book collection. Being the sort of person who needs to read before falling asleep, I scanned one of her bookcases.
A flash of red with black lettering caught my eye. Bird by Bird?
Intrigued, I pulled it out. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.
“Ah… so it’s not about birds,” I mused, and crawled into bed for a quiet read.
Anne Lamott is a funny writer. Instead of falling asleep, I was fully engaged and awake. And that’s when I found it — the key to practically everything I do — and writing in particular.
“Chapter 3: Shitty First Drafts”
The chapter title was unexpected! And the concept… surprising.
If you are like me, you’ve imagined that great and successful writers can sit down in front of the computer and instantly spin straw into gold.
Here’s what Lamott says: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper.”
You see, before I found this enlightening chapter in Lamott’s marvelous book, the way I would start to write a first draft for anything was to sit in front of my computer and stare at it. I’d attempt a word, a sentence, a paragraph. Then, I’d read it back to myself, judge it as terrible, and destroy it.
But here’s what’s wrong with writing your first draft this way. When you let your inner judge rear its ugly head and find fault with your first fumbling thoughts, you are doomed.
We stifle our creativity when we prejudge and self-edit our writing at this early stage. That’s how we feed our writing insecurities. And that’s why we need shitty first drafts.
The Awesome Power of Writing a Lousy First Draft
I think of a terrible first draft as a brain dump.
If you aren’t familiar with that terminology, a brain dump is when you write down all the thoughts — often disjointed to-do lists — to get them out of your head and on paper where you actually can do something about them.
Getting the clutter out frees you up for new information, new ideas, and actions that otherwise are blocked by all the thought-baggage.
To show how this concept helps me every time, let’s consider, for instance, how I might go about writing a first draft for a press release.
My press releases involve an interview with at least one person and, therefore, can result in several pages of interesting quotes. While I’m contemplating which quotes might be most intriguing or might complement other pertinent information, I’m also thinking about how to make the press release tantalizing for editors.
And so, I sit at the computer, page of quotes beside me, and start in. Or try to.
The first sentence I write is garbage. The first paragraph is all over the place. I’ve left out key information, as it clashes with the smooth delivery of my story. All the quotes sound alike. Doubt creeps in around the edges.
And then, I remember my key to writing success and apply the Shitty First Draft concept. I write anything. I may even include every single quote, adding any ideas that come up when I type them. My writing is early grade-schooler quality.
But that’s okay. Because, I dump all the information out of my brain and walk away. I’ll come back later with fresh eyes and see what can be salvaged.
I’ve cut my editing down from seven drafts to three or less using this method. Not only is it a time-saver, but it’s a sanity saver, too.
Expanding on the First Draft
In my other life, I’m a landscape designer. That involves the creation of magical spaces for my clients. I can tell you that there is stress involved in being entrusted with a landscape.
I now use the shitty first draft concept there, too. After all, the landscape design is only on paper initially. Telling myself it’s only a draft and not the final concept makes starting and sticking to a project much less stressful.
The same goes for anything that has to be created from nothing. It’s okay to have a lousy first draft. It only can get better!
Having used this sage advice for several years now, I trust it implicitly. The process never lets me down. Apparently, it never lets Lamott down, either. She says: “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
So go ahead… start those shitty first drafts and write your way to success!