How Good is Your First Draft?

craphappensAnne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, suggested that every writer suffering writer’s block should remember that the person is allowed to produce what she calls “shitty first drafts.”

At this juncture, James would like to say that this is a business blog of the most inoffensive nature, and that I am not permitted to use the word shitty. I pointed out that I was quoting Ms. Lamott, which makes it okay, since if it’s good enough for Anchor Books’ publishers, surely it is also good enough for Men with Pens.

“Fine,” James sighs. “But use ‘crap’ from here on, okay?”

Okay, James. Whatever you say.

I wish to disagree with Ms. Lamott, troublesome to James though she is. Sh . . . crappy first drafts have never worked for me. Mostly because the whole point of writer’s block is that I am terrified of producing . . . well, crap.

“It’s okay,” Anne says, “You are allowed to produce crappy first drafts, because no one but you will see it.”

Yeah, but I will see it. And I will know. And then the shame will haunt me late at night, and I’ll wake in a cold sweat, knowing deep in my soul that I write shitty-… crappy drafts. Even if the draft I turn in is pure and sweet and good, I will know that the crap has been there and that it taints my soul.

So I can’t allow myself to write crappy first drafts, no matter what Ms. Lamott says. I have, however, discovered a way around this dilemma. And that is writing intentionally bad first drafts.

There is a distinct difference.

Crappy drafts, you see, aren’t intended to be crappy. They turn out that way through no will of your own. You’re trying to write well. You are trying, in fact, to write spectacular prose and witty little vignettes. But what you are getting is crap. And Ms. Lamott says that’s okay, just let it happen.

I say nay. I say embrace the crap.

Sit down to write a draft that is intentionally nothing like what you want the finished version to be. For me, this usually involves being a sarcastic minx. If I am asked to write a couple pages of web copy, here’s what my intentionally bad first draft looks like:

“Home page – Man, we’re awesome. So awesomely awesome. Look how awesome we are. We produce services and good stuff and we’re nice to our customers, too. Go team. Man, our awesomeness just gave me a hernia when I tried to lift it. That’s how much awesome we have.”

Now, that’s nowhere near what the final draft will look like. But when I write an intentionally bad first draft, with all the sarcasm and such, occasionally my brain will try to trip me up. It says, “Ho-ho! You’re trying to write a bad draft, are you?! Well, we’ll see about that!

Then my brain starts to give me some pretty good sentences. It thinks it is tripping me up. I just write the sentences down as though I didn’t notice there were good sentences cluttering up my bad draft.

In about fifteen minutes, though, the joke’s on my brain. I now have good sentences scattered throughout my draft. These are the foundation for my actual “first” draft. The one I send to the clients. Because there was never a crappy first draft. We don’t do crappy first drafts here. Nuh-uh.

We do intentionally bad ones.

Post by Taylor

Taylor Lindstrom (fondly known as Tei) is a twenty-something copywriter and journalist from Boulder, CO. She’s the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club. She loves the color green, micro-point Uniball pens, and medieval weaponry.

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  1. Brilliant idea…now, if I could only get myself to stop editing while ’embracing the crap’, I’ll have it made.

    I’m not sure if I could write intentionally bad copy quite like you, but I aim to make a valiant stab at it.

    Btw… absolutely hilarious… you owe me one cup of coffee 😉

    Angie Haggstrom
    Freedom Freelance

  2. Ah… that made me laugh.

    Good technique though, have not heard it done to that degree. The advice I have heard in the past is write a draft as fast as possible, knowing it will be bad.

  3. First drafts are my enemies. They’re the bane of my existence as a writer. They’re sh – crappy companions that fall off the chair laughing at me, pointing at my crappy words.

    How is a writer supposed to survive that?!

    The terrified writer in me found a way. I built a place for my crappy first drafts. A special place where I banish them once I’ve written them. They’re left alone with their own crappiness. Free to roll around and swim in their own crap while I go out and produce excellent copy. Who’s laughing now?

    Your idea kicks my crappy first draft’s ass even more! Now I’ll take away all the good sentences with me from now on too instead of leaving them behind and rewriting them.

    I can’t wait to produce that first draft now. Revenge is sweet!

    Samar´s last blog post…Keeping my ‘zen seat’ warm

  4. Tei, good to see you toeing the company line set down by King James. 😉

    This has got me thinking, because my first draft is generally very similar to my final draft. I edit as I go, it drives me crazy not to, and my work tends to come out as fully formed sentences and paragraphs. I may delete a para or two on the way, but that’s rare.

    Now, I’m not a writer by any means. Well, I write for my blog – does that make me a writer? Maybe I should say that I’m not a professional writer… Anyway, I’m now wondering if trying to write a deliberately bad first draft and then editing the heck out of it would improve my writing, frustrate me more, or make it worse?

    Thanks for the kick into thinking mode Tei!

    Melinda´s last blog post…The B.S. Funnel

  5. I like it. Now whenever someone tells me my work is crap I can just retort with “Yeah I know. I meant to write crap” 🙂

  6. Tei,

    I laughed out loud, especially at the hernia. Are you saying I should take that off my home page?

    However, I confess to having Melinda’s writing style. I probably don’t come off as George Sand right away, but I do edit my head off as I go. (Even here. In this comment. ‘Tis true.)

    I still do second (and third) drafts, but the first draft can *not* sit on my desk being crummy. Maybe it’s my Capricorn nature. I’m thinking about it, though… maybe it might work as a brainstorming technique. Reading yours did sort of get me thinking sideways, and I’m always up for that!

    Regards,

    Kelly

  7. Hey Kelly, we should have a challenge. For the next week or so we have to write intentionally bad first drafts, and see how it goes. What do you think?

    Melinda´s last blog post…The B.S. Funnel

  8. & Post ’em here and annoy James to death?

    You first…

    😀

  9. LOL, I do the same thing. Not often, but sometimes. I tend to do it when I don’t have a good lead sentence. When I don’t quite know where to start, I’ll pretend I’m writing an email to a friend. My emails share little in common with my copy, so that all of a sudden makes the writing kind of fun and over the top. This is fine, because it all gets pared down in the rewrite.

    Writer Dad´s last blog post…The Collective Inkwell Interview: Brian Anderson of Dog Eat Doug

  10. I like the idea, but I’ll stick to what I think is Anne Lamott’s basic principle, which is that it’s important to just *write*.

    It’s one of the biggest things I’ve had to train myself to do, to actually write an article without trying to edit at the same time I’m composing. I used to continually break my creative flow – every sentence I finished I’d edit before I went on to the next one.

    By just letting the text flow then yes, you may end up with “crap”, but the concepts and ideas are there and you can edit a full piece of work in context. It flows better as a reading experience and you can really punch it up when you examine the article in a complete state – even if the end result may change significantly after editing.

  11. My goal is to write good first drafts, edit them to make them better, and then get the work out to my clients.

    I typically have a lot of work to do, so I focus on efficiency.

    Of course, if writing crappy first drafts works for you, you should do it. That’s definitely how I wrote poetry, back when I still wrote poetry. Problem is, most of it never got past the crap stage.

    John Soares´s last blog post…Must Read: Inside Higher Ed Post on How the Higher Education Opportunity Act Affects College Textbook Purchases and Sales

  12. This is like the idea that my friend and I have been using, which is “embrace the suck”… accept that sometimes things will suck, but that you will never know unless you TRY.

    I am horrible for not allowing myself to try because, well… what if what I write SUCKS? What if my drawing SUCKS? What if the first podcast I do sucks? What if the muffins I make SUCK? I got so stuck in the fear of sucking that I wasn’t allowing myself to even start sometimes…

    It came to the point where we have “Embraced the Suck” and rejoiced in the fact that we can TRY something and that we can suck and not freak out… and that its all a learning experience…

    Not to say it isn’t INTENSELY UNCOMFORTABLE to not be good at things… but it is a learning experience.

    Pam´s last blog post…Becoming Visible again

  13. I tend to be economical with my drafts. I get an idea and then let my subconscious play with it. When it has done the first and second drafts while I’ve been doing other stuff, I sit down and write something that’s pretty close to the final product.

    Except of course when my subconscious is being stubborn and I do the first and second draft part on paper. But I try not to get all blocked about it because I see it as just another way for my subconscious to work. I’m not actually writing when I’m writing crap. I’m sketching. Completely different set of tools and goals.

    Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome´s last blog post…No You Won’t Need It Someday

  14. “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing down on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in the process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on.”
    –John Steinbeck

    Granted, he was talking about novels, but Steinbeck’s point stands: get it down on paper. Whether it’s crappy or intentionally bad. 🙂

    @Kelly and Melinda: Hmm…I like this idea…Our very own Bulwer-Lytton Contest for website copy, perhaps?

  15. Stacey says:

    I found the sh-crappy first drafts very freeing. I’m okay with writing crap, as long as there is no evidence left behind . . . destroy it ALL. In a lit class I’m taking, the professor requested a first draft of our initial essay, saying he wanted to see our “process”. I told him NO ONE sees my first draft other than my shredder. He could have the second, the first I would claim.

    I do so enjoy you, Taylor. Just thought I’d mention it.

  16. My first draft isn’t USUALLY too terrible, but my first sentence or first paragraph often is. It takes me a few sentences to really hit the meat of whatever I’m writing about. In fact, a lot of the time, I just lop off the first paragraph altogether and let the second one be the opener of the final piece. (Heck, when I wrote my novel, I ended up tossing the entire first chapter.) (Well, okay, I didn’t actually toss it, I just saved it to its own document for nostalgia’s sake … I can’t help it.)

    –Deb´s last blog post…More Guesting

  17. Y’all can say shit down here in the comment section 🙂

    As for me, I am not an edit-whore, simply an editor.

  18. @ Pam –

    I am horrible for not allowing myself to try because, well… what if what I write SUCKS? What if my drawing SUCKS? What if the first podcast I do sucks? What if the muffins I make SUCK? I got so stuck in the fear of sucking that I wasn’t allowing myself to even start sometimes…

    *blink* Okay, what if? *curious* The sky would fall? People would fill auditoriums to laugh, even buy tickets? The singlemost only opportunity for success in life would crash? The love of your life scorns you, takes your kids and moves to Tahiti? The bank empties your account and has meetings to giggle over it all?

    I’m using your comment as an example and I’m sure that’s not at all how you see it, but I do know that a lot of people do see life that way.

    I get the “what if it sucks” feeling. But you can either acknowledge it and say, “Yeah, yeah, I know. What if. Yawn. Come up with a new line. You’ve tried that before, buddy,” and move on, doing what you know you can do well.

    Or you can be consumed by fear to the point that “what ifs” keep you locked in your home 24/7 and you experience nothing. Life passes you by.

    It came to the point where we have “Embraced the Suck” and rejoiced in the fact that we can TRY something and that we can suck and not freak out… and that its all a learning experience…

    Heheh, exactly.

    Not to say it isn’t INTENSELY UNCOMFORTABLE to not be good at things… but it is a learning experience.

  19. Hi Taylor,

    I do the exact same thing, although I hadn’t thought about it that way. I have the same aversion to crappy drafts, but occasionally you need a way to get past the writer’s block and just get some words on paper.

    So I start typing, and I write a facetious version of the copy. And then, as you say, “the joke’s on my brain.” I pull what’s good and work from there.

    Occasionally the facetious version makes me consider a new way to write: I end up liking the fake version more than expected, so I clean it up and keep it. Writing intentionally bad copy can be a surprisingly effective way to think outside the box.

    David J. Garcia´s last blog post…You don’t have to outrun the bear

  20. I like the fact you found a way to trick your brain into doing you good.

    My favorite way to fight perfectionism is to version perfection over time

    Another rule that helps me is to “incrementally share” … … so it’s varying degrees of crap over time … some is half-baked, some is old and crusty … it just depends on where I’m at in the cycle 😉

  21. LMAO My drafts go from first draft to other drafts so quickly that I don’t pay attention.

    Nice strategy. Maybe that is the trick I need to share with all those people who wonder about the “secret” to writing.

    Ark Lady´s last blog post…Animal Career Chat: Shiraj’s Question

  22. “As Lisa’s harpy-posing-as-muse I’m here to tell you she’s too arrogant and clueless to recognize a shicrappy first draft. Add to that she thinks if she reads every last post and archive on MWP and Copyblogger and heaven knows what else, that she’lll actually develop talent. What a load of…”

    See, she follows me everywhere. She comes in the door ahead of me every time. Unbearable. Meanwhile I just click “send” and watch the money roll in. Ha, hahaha.

    Lisa Gates´s last blog post…Quite Possibly the Best Article (and book) on Work-Life Balance Ever

  23. I’m sorry, I’m just stuck on the fact that James has the right to tell anyone they cannot swear. Lord love a duck! What a hypocrite!

    Urban Panther´s last blog post…Is this a mid-life crisis?

  24. Whoops, who let this lovely *mutters* and very wonderful *grumbles* lady in? Ms. Panther, the exit is right this way…

    😉

  25. I just free-write … and then sleep on it. Then I return to it and see what gems of wisdom might have emerged…and then repeat the process.

    The final document generally benefits quite well from me giving myself permission to write whatever flows from me pen.

    Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog post…Fantastic Friendfeed Tutorials and Resources

  26. This post is a true gem! I love it! I will from now on, “embrace the crap!” Thank you!

    Paige´s last blog post…Rather sad

  27. crappy drafts are great; they give humility, and exuberance when i do turn out a good copy…of course they can be too much of a good thing…

    Kaushik´s last blog post…Are you unempolyed – Lost your job? – Worried about your job? Laid off? Not finding a job? Do you have anxiety about the financial crisis?

  28. I came off the feeling what to write. I’m never scared of my first drafts anymore. I’m no James at Men with Pens. The fact that I’m writing makes me feel happy. I know there are several people who can’t even pen one sentence.
    I feel comfortable writing crap. I’ve no qualms sometimes showing them thinking it’s a great stuff. But, I did it first time, right?
    I don’t really fret what to comment also. I don’t want to be someone different; but myself. There are people who accept an occasional break unintended. 🙂 Like James said, people fill the auditoriums to laugh. If I can make them laugh through my not-so-well- thought out drafts…. I don’t mind. I know they’ll think this guy did it, no matter how – half baked, rusty or whatever. Shield this comment from my clients pls.!
    Kudos for the great idea of the post!

    Solomon´s last blog post…How to unshackle your writing muse?

  29. First drafts, not doing it well, what if it sucks have really never bothered me. I write what comes to me and then go back and edit. It’s a wonderful process, when you don’t let your ego get in the way.

    Joely Black´s last blog post…Sample 3: How one punch started an entire war

  30. Oh my gosh, Taylor, you just blew my mind. I was tossing and turning last night thinking about this very subject.

    Honestly, the number one reason I haven’t even started my latest attempt at a novel is because I’m afraid it’s going to be terrible. I never thought of INTENTIONALLY making it terrible.

    This changes everything.

  31. My experience with the “shitty first drafts” deal is that it gives me permission to write whatever I want without the pressure to perform as a perfectionist. ( WOW! That was a lot of “p’s” for one little sentence). And when I go back to read what I’ve written, I most often find out that it’s not so shitty after all!

    Thanks for letting us have full rein to be potty mouths in your comments section!!!

    chris Zydel´s last blog post…Creative Miracle Grow: The Crazy Wonderfulness That Can Happen When Someone Believes In YOU!

  32. Postcard Mailing says:

    Nice! I like that idea, actually writing intentionally bad first drafts. Will try doing that whenever I write, that should give me something to work with. Usually what I do is just write down words or ideas that I come up with. But this, this should really get the creative juices flowing 🙂

  33. Holy sh-crap. You might just have the answer there! This is the best advice I’ve read in years.

  34. I love that essay on.. crappy first drafts. 🙂

  35. Super good article. I like just got done writing a draft like a thirteen year old girl, and it turn out AWFUL! Lol, I had written 100 words before that, and now I’m like up to 500 in just a few minutes. Most of them are “likes” and “ums,” but really cool, you know? There are a few good sentences in there, which is cool.

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