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How to Cherish Your Shitty First Drafts (And Get More Writing Done)

The Magic of Shitty First DraftsAfraid to produce shoddy writing?

Staring at a blank sheet, you might wonder …

What if you write crap?

What if you’re unable to turn your crappy draft into decent content?

What if you’re wasting your time?

Getting started with your next piece of content can feel like a big burden. An insurmountable task.

Perhaps you find excuses and do your household chores first. The kitchen still needs cleaning. The Christmas shopping list is waiting. And weren’t you going to call your friend?

Even experienced writers may need to trick themselves so they stop despairing and get on with their writing tasks.

Want to know how?

I used to hate writing …

I love editing, but I hated writing.

Editing is a playful activity. I have fun with words, I try different sentence structures, I play with rhythm. I don’t put any pressure on myself.

In contrast, writing a first draft has always seemed damn hard work. I hate staring at a blank sheet. I detest struggling to formulate my thoughts. I despise writing bland and wordy sentences.

The more books I read about writing, the more I hated writing first drafts. Because I learned what I wanted to achieve with my writing but I couldn’t produce the standard I aimed for.

My performance anxiety increased.

Until I had a mini-breakthrough.

I discovered the idea of shitty first drafts in Anne Lamott’s book “Bird by Bird.”

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.
~ Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott told me to relax. To give myself permission to write shitty first drafts. To see these ugly drafts as part of the writing process.

Writing as a conveyor belt process

In content marketing circles, writing is often viewed from a productivity angle. The aim is to produce good content faster. Some even argue quantity is more important than the quality of your writing.

That’s why they propose content writing as a conveyor belt process:

  • Write about what you know so you can write faster
  • Always outline before you start writing so you know exactly what content you need to produce
  • Don’t spend time on experimentation—creativity can slow you down
  • Follow proven structures—a list post, for instance, is quicker to write

This is a valid writing process; and the big advantage is that it’s quick because following a process and proven structure helps you produce content faster. And you can write a decent first draft, so you don’t need to rewrite much.

But the content conveyor belt doesn’t leave much room for creativity and experimentation. It doesn’t allow you to use your writing to think. To explore and dig deeper. To find and formulate new thoughts. To be surprised by new wisdom.

When writing becomes a discovery journey, we don’t always outline and we don’t follow proven templates. Instead, we prod, poke and stir until we discover what we really think and want to write.

As Donald M. Murray writes in “A Writer Teaches Writing:”

The purpose of the first draft is to discover. Peter Drucker calls it a “zero draft.” Other names might be a trial draft, a test draft, a dress rehearsal draft, a practice draft, an explanation or an experimental draft.

This type of discovery writing often leads to shitty first drafts. But that’s no reason for despair. You can transform a shitty first draft into magical content like a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly.

How to rescue a shitty first draft

I used to think that once a caterpillar had grown big enough, it simply grew beautiful wings so it could enjoy the freedom of flying. A magical process.

But did you know how gruesome this process is?

A caterpillar digests itself, destroying all its tissues before turning into a butterfly. It’s a fascinating, but grisly process. (source)

To transform your shitty first draft, you go through a similar process. The key is not to fall into despair, and not to focus on what’s wrong with your draft. Instead, focus on the jewels buried in your words.

Step back from your writing. Don’t think of yourself as the writer of your precious words, try to review your draft from a distance—for instance, as a friend or compassionate teacher—and read your draft quickly:

  • What’s the most valuable point for your readers?
  • Which problem does your content solve?
  • What surprised you?

For instance, last week, I wanted to write a post about overcoming reader objections to purchasing. My first draft was getting unwieldy, and the most interesting part was the 2-step process for adding credibility. So, I narrowed down the scope of my article and scrapped the unwieldy parts.

Especially when I write about personal experiences, like self-doubt, my inner critic, or perfectionism, I find it hard to outline a post. So, I freewrite a first draft, then look for the jewels, and rewrite my post to find focus.

Good writing isn’t about the quality of your first draft. It’s about nurturing your ability to spot what’s good in your draft.

Like a 12-legged pest can turn into a beautiful butterfly, a shitty first draft can morph into your best piece of writing.

How to get your first draft written

The purpose of your first draft depends on your writing process:

  • If you follow the conveyor belt process and have a good outline, your purpose is to write a decent first draft
  • If writing is a discovery process, your purpose is to get your ideas out of your head so you have a starting point for revising your text
  • Your process may fall in between—you could partly freewrite and rely on a rough sketch as an outline

Sometimes you may need to produce content quicker, and at other times you may have more time for exploration and experimentation. Try different approaches, and find out what works for you. Learn which process feels most rewarding—writing can nurture your soul.

Once you’ve decided the purpose of your draft, get your first draft written:

  • Give yourself permission to write shitty content; perhaps write down “shitty first draft” or “discovery draft” at the top of your page
  • Remove all distractions, set a timer 15 or 25 minutes and write non-stop; take a break and reset your timer
  • Write as fast as possible to outpace your inner critic
  • Consider writing someone else’s name at the top of the draft so you feel less precious about your words
  • Type nonsense words to get your fingers moving and kick your brain into action

Remember, it’s fine to write a shitty first draft—the only person who sees your draft is you.

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
~ Stephen King

The art and magic of shitty first drafts

To stop feeling despair at the state of my first drafts, I had to get over my perfectionism.

I had to embrace the idea that writing is a process, and that often the best pieces of content are composed over time, through various phases of rewriting.

When I learned to embrace shitty first drafts, I started to trust my writing process. I discovered the joy of outpacing my inner critic. I learned to embrace the gruesome metamorphosis required during the revision process.

I learned to think, explore, and dig for jewels.

Comments

  1. So true. We are our own worst critics. But often, when you go back and read the shitty first draft, it’s actually never as bad as you initially thought.

  2. Hi Henneke,
    I’ve read that theory before, the one that says write ANYTHING and some clear thought will follow. Maybe my brain is wired differently. The less structure I begin with, the more the result becomes complete shite. The only option is to flush it away.
    The only thing I have found that gets me anywhere in my very painful writing process is to start with an idea which is the trunk, then build branches and sub-branches until I run out of ideas. Eventually I order everything and prune the tree and flesh it out a bit.
    I wish I could surprise myself with my own thoughts.

    • I probably should have made this clearer … you should find the writing process that works for you. There’s no one-size-fits-all. Some people love writing based on detailed outline, other people love freewriting. I use both approaches depending on the topic and the size of the writing project.

  3. “Good writing isn’t about the quality of your first draft. It’s about nurturing your ability to spot what’s good in your draft.”
    I love this…it’s about spotting what’s good. I have had poor first drafts turn into good material.
    It’s spewing it all out to get a look at it is often the hardest part, because it’s when you feel most vulnerable, even in the privacy of your own room. I think that’s why we self-edit so much as we go.

    • PS Love the detail in the butterfly! 🙂

    • Yes, I can’t always stop myself from self-editing while writing a first draft either. When I’m pretty sure the content is decent, I let myself self-edit. But if I feel unsure, I try to stop myself from editing until the draft is complete. But that’s hard!

      I’ve also found that sometimes poor first drafts can turn into pretty good writing. Often I feel really satisfied when I’ve been able to morph a poor draft into decent content. It can be a rewarding process.

      And I’m glad you liked the butterfly. I had to draw it a lot bigger as it’s difficult to do details with colored pencils. Resizing works good though 🙂

  4. Funny, Henneke. We’re just the opposite in this regard. I love writing. Hate editing. However, my inner critic has other ideas. See, I always considered the inner critic as that nasty editor – the one who interrupts me constantly while I am writing that first draft. She makes me stop and edit as I go along the discovery draft (love that term!) I have gotten better at ignoring that inner critic editor but she is a pushy broad. 😉

    I’ve told everyone how much I appreciate you helping me rewire my thinking about editing to tap into the creative, playful side of writing I love. Which came first? The writer or the editor? 🙂
    Cathy Miller recently posted…Your End-of-Year Business Review: Keeping it SimpleMy Profile

    • I came across the word “discovery draft” in Donald Murray’s book. I like it, too!

      Isn’t it fascinating how we all appreciate different aspects of writing? And how we feel more comfortable with different writing processes? This is why I think writing teachers should explain there’s different ways to write and not force students to follow one process.

  5. I happened to be taking a sip from my coffee cup as your post came up on my screen. Big mistake! I nearly splattered coffee all over my computer, because your drawing made me laugh 😀 I thought, “Only Henneke can write something like ‘The Magic of Shitty First Drafts’ and get away with it” 🙂

    It’s ironic, isn’t it? You love editing, but you hate writing the first draft. So surely, writing that first draft is simply the process of creating something that you can then edit to your heart’s content?

    You’re absolutely right: we have to let go of this anal retentive idea that first drafts have to be perfect. They’re simply the raw material, the brain dump that you get out of your system asap, so that you’ve got something to work with, something to play around with.
    Bart Schroeven recently posted…Step into your space travel podMy Profile

    • Oh my, I hope your computer survived!?!

      I like contrast in writing, so “magic” and “shitty” go well together for me. It seems like it’s upset at least one reader who unsubscribed due to crass language. Oh well, I can’t please everyone …

      And yes, you’re absolutely right… “writing that first draft is simply the process of creating something that you can then edit to your heart’s content?” It’s something I force myself to do as quickly as possible (preferably in the morning when I still feel quite groggy, so my inner critic is still asleep 😉 )

  6. I was taught it is a rough draft.
    The first draft actually came second. Teacher wanted to see that first draft. She never wanted to see the rough draft. She understood.
    I’ve always thought it sad we disparage that first work, as if anyone is capable of writing everything without editing. Crazy world.
    We should learn to value that rough draft. It’s rough, yes. It’s okay.
    Katharine recently posted…So. You Think You’re not a Mom, Huh?My Profile

    • I like that idea of producing a rough draft before you write an actual first draft. I’ve not heard it described like that before.

      I agree with you that we should value that rough draft more. A diamond doesn’t sparkle until it’s properly cut, right?

  7. So you would freewrite and see if something interesting turns up?
    That never ever works for me. My pieces either work, or they don’t. And if they don’t, I have to throw them out completely. I even find it is less work to start afresh than to rework an old draft.

    But everyone has their own strategies. Brains are funny things.

    • I sometimes freewrite, and I sometimes outline before I write.

      But even when I freewrite, I still have some rough ideas of things I want to cover, but I haven’t quite figured out how my ideas are going to work in the draft. I don’t know in which order I should cover the ideas because I don’t quite know how they’re connected. And when I write like this, often new ideas pop up and I disregard some of the initial ideas.

      So, I do have some general direction, but it’s a very very rough sketch rather than an outline. It’s fluid rather than rigid.

      And yes, it’s funny how brains work. 🙂

      • I think my training as a journalist has made me write in a different way. Before that, I probably started writing too until I found my aim. But when you have to write quickly every day, you train yourself to get it right the first time. I remember the first time I saw a fellow journalist write that way and realized it saved a lot of time. So that is what I started doing, too. It means you invent and edit at the same time. No seperation of these processes.

  8. I absolutely LOVE “Shitty First Drafts.” It’s one of the the pieces I make every writing class I teach at the college read … regardless of the course level.

    In fact, you’re such a good mind reader that I’m about release a new article on my own blog that not only contains Ann’s advice, but also the King line on the closed and open doored — followed by his less metaphorical version, “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

    All that “great minds” stuff aside … 😉

    You have such a gift for meeting me RIGHT where I’m at. The list of opening questions, followed by your empathic tone, and uber practical advice: brilliant.

    I’ll be sharing this far and wide.
    Aaron Orendorff recently posted…An Ode to Small Things: All You Need Is What’s NextMy Profile

    • You AND me … I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, too.

      Another quote I love from Stephen King is this:
      “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

      It sums it up brilliantly, doesn’t it?

      Thank you for sharing and for stopping by again, Aaron. Always good to see you!

  9. Andrew M. Warner says:

    Exceptionally well written post, Henneke.

    I understand everything you said here, but for me, it’s just so tough to NOT follow a process. To not follow an outline. I do appreciate the gems free writing can open up but when you’ve followed a certain process for years it takes time to try something else.

    But I do like the idea of the shitty first drafts. Process of not you have to let your soul bleed out in your words and do some serious editing afterwards. Just like you said you did with last week’s article.

    Excellent stuff as always.

    – Andrew

    • I’m not suggesting you have to try freewriting. If outlining works for you, stick to your process.

      If you get bored or feel stifled by the process, it’s time to try something different. But when it works, keep it going. There’s many benefits to outlining properly first – it often gets you quicker to a decent piece of content!

  10. John Falepau says:

    Great post. A year ago I decided to write a book. I have a challenging aspect to my life, and wanted to see where 365 days would take me. I stepped in to the unknown and wrote an am and pm entry. My thoughts of the day, events and with no idea where my year would take me. Well, now I know. I have my draft manuscript and quite a powerful message to share on living a beautiful life. The beauty of not knowing the journey, what would happen, and where I would end up made it a fascinating writing experience of growth, learning and personal development. Not only have I become a writer, but I have written an unscripted book. I have always loved sharing my thoughts through my writing and have previously written for Yoga magazines, website, and copywriting, but none have been as powerful a journey as writing the book. As I begin to edit my manuscript, the most important aspect was taking that first step a year ago and starting. Making a commitment to write twice a day with no plot, no planning, just every day life events and as they presented and unfolded. Interesting to see how my writing developed over the year. The first few months were a little scattered as I found my rhythm, but once I began speaking to my audience (self help book) I connected to them and our journey became shared. So I have my shitty draft, and have absolutely embraced the journey. During the year I have managed my condition, lived my beautiful life, written a manuscript, and completed my Diploma in Professional coaching.
    I so enjoy receiving your posts Henneke, as all of them are have been such a timely support and learning throughout my writing journey, including this one.
    Shitty drafts are definitely part of my process.

    – John

    • What a great story, John.

      I love this:
      “once I began speaking to my audience (…) I connected to them and our journey became shared”

      Thank you so much for sharing.

  11. I have often felt that my writing fell short of what I was capable, and this probably has to do with the fact that I’ve been in this high productivity world of writing, where your first draft is essentially your only full draft. Sounds like I need to start using some different writing muscles in order to have my own wonderfully gruesome transformation. Thank you for the post!
    Ashley Laabs recently posted…Make Yourself Great AgainMy Profile

    • What works best for me is to try spreading the process over a few days, so my brain has time to come up with other approaches or ways to formulate my thoughts better.

      It’d be interesting to hear what you find out when you try some different writing muscles. Let me know?

      Happy writing!

  12. Henneke, I like to get into my writer trance for the first draft. Anything goes. The funny thing is as I’m writing, what my brain scoffs at the most, many times I end up using later. Its funny what the subconscious comes up with, if you let it.
    Laurie recently posted…Gulp…Is It Time to Finally Downsize?My Profile

    • Yes, that happens to me, too. And also the opposite: the paragraph I like best while writing my first draft, often gets scrapped when rewriting.

      Weird, eh?

      Good to see you again! 🙂

  13. Paul Williams says:

    Hi Henneke – Thank you for unlocking what has plagued me for ages. I have a very bad habit of avoiding shitty first drafts by self criticism and editing for perfection while I write.
    Until I read your blog I had never heard of freewriting, or of the benefits it provides in unclogging the writer’s mind.
    I found a useful comment by Peter Elbow in his excellent one-page explanation of freewriting:
    “The main thing about freewriting is that it is nonediting. It is an exercise in bringing together the process of producing words and putting them down on the page. Practiced regularly, it undoes the ingrained habit of editing at the same time you are trying to produce. It will make writing less blocked because words will come more easily.”
    Peter’s article is at http://faculty.buffalostate.edu/wahlstrl/eng309/Freewriting.pdf

    I hope it is not too late learn the method, because my writing output will continue to suffers until I break the “perfection” habit.
    Best wishes from a sunny Sydney – Paul

    • That’s a great article. I like this:

      “The habit of compulsive, premature editing doesn’t just make writing hard. It also makes writing dead. Your voice is
      damped out by all the interruptions, changes, and hesitations between the consciousness and the page. In your natural way of
      producing words there is a sound, a texture, a rhythm–a voice–which is the main source of power in your writing. I don’t know
      how it works, but this voice is the force that will make a reader listen to you.”

      Thank you for sharing, Paul. I appreciate it. I’m going to check out Peter Elbow’s books, too. I can’t remember where, but I’m pretty sure I came across his name before.

      And I don’t think it’s too late to practice different writing methods. Just be kind to yourself—it may take a while to get into the spirit of freewriting.

      • Paul Williams says:

        Yes Henneke – that “makes writing dead ….” quote is exactly how I feel when I have overdone self-doubt and allowed myself to freeze up. I sure need to break my habit!!

        Thank you again for this really great blog.

        • Hi Paul, Don’t forget that we often think our writing is far worse than it is in reality. Review your first draft with kindness, looking for the jewels, rather than ruthlessness, summing up everything that’s wrong. Happy writing!

  14. Ayesha Marilyn says:

    Love this! So motivating! The butterfly metaphor just warms my heart and makes an accurate representation of not only the writing process but most processes in general. I generally struggle with starting because I’m scared of it not being good enough. This post helps so much, thank you.

    • Great! That’s so lovely to hear.

      When you start, you don’t have to write something that’s “good enough;” you can make it “good enough” later. The only aim of starting is to get some words down on paper. So, try to make the first task as small as possible. For instance, work on the part of a post that you think is easiest to write. I find openings and closings tough, so I never start with them. I always start with the middle.

      Thank you for stopping by, Ayesha. I appreciate it.

  15. Davis B. Ochieng says:

    Sense is a hard thing to make. This article does it brilliantly.
    My struggle has been on perfectionism, always trying to get it right the first time.
    I now see that I dont have to struggle with both elements at the same time.
    I just need to get the idea out, and then work on removing whats wrong with it. That way I remain with whats right.
    Im enchanted!
    Thanks

    • What a lovely comment. You put it well.

      Let your inner critic do his work only after you got your first draft done. Use him when editing to perfect your work. 🙂

      Thank you for commenting, Davis. I appreciate it.

  16. Thank you so much for this article. You have inspired me. I used to dread about writing a rough draft. I always knew that a rough draft is not your final draft but somehow still struggle. You have motivated me. Thank you so much. God bless you.

  17. Hey Henneke! How are you? I hope you are doing good!
    Well, i think its an amazing post to read as it makes me go to my past days and see what i was 2 years back. I had a draft in my blogger for about a month, but i didn’t know how to take the post forward.
    I wish i could have been able to read this post at that time.
    Thanks again for taking time and writing such an educational post.

  18. Hi Henneke ,
    Great post thanks for sharing..:)

    Thanks
    Raj Kumar
    Raj Kumar recently posted…What is Quinoa Every thing you want to knowMy Profile

  19. I dread starting to write. I do all the research I need, but sitting down to write becomes a pain.

    I will start writing the shitty draft first and see how that works for me.

    Thanks for sharing practical tips in every post you publish.

    • I hope it helps, Daniel! It took me some practice, but I now find it a lot easier to get started. And I always use a timer (FocusBooster) so I stop procrastinating and get on with writing 🙂

  20. Lovely post here… The worst and the most painful process is always that of getting started, picking yourself up and getting ready to soil your hands in the mud. Like you were, I fear writing a new content. Even if o might have written great content before, I still lazyaround ’cause I don’t want to do a shoddy work and dilute the ones I have done…

    In so doing, my blog runs dry as it now lacks fresh content. This article on shitty ‘discovery’ drafts have really helped me a lot. Thanks for such a write, The comments and your replies are super great as well… I literally read every comment herein, and sure enough am coming back for more….

    And hey, I stayed late reading this…. ( I didn’t say anything…) Awesome read, 🙂 Cheers 🙂
    Mysson recently posted…Developing the Art of Self-disciplineMy Profile

    • I know the feeling!

      What helps me is to make the task as small as possible, so I can get started. For instance, just type a few words. Any words will do.

      Happy writing, Mysson!

  21. Hi Henneke,

    Once again, you’ve made us all feel a whole lot better. In the future, when we see a blank screen or a jumbled mess of words, we’ll remember that you suffer from shitty first drafts too!

    I liked the paragraph about the content marketing conveyor belt. It made me step back and think. And you’re right. It’s good to step off the treadmill and try some different ideas now and then.

    Thanks for your encouraging words.
    – David

    PS – Sorry for my late comment. Your email sat patiently in my inbox while I finished off other business. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking with it 🙂
    David Hartshorne recently posted…How To Write An Engaging Blog Post (That Your Readers And Google Will Both Love)My Profile

    • Hi David

      You can join the enchanting party any time – it’s never too late 🙂

      I think we all need a new creative injection from time to time, to get out a rut and explore new writing territory.

      Happy writing!

  22. hello henneke! here is mine – i comment a lot on facebook, and i enjoy it very much. now, if i start by trying to think exactly what i want to write in my comment, and how best to say it, i end up not commenting at all. i would lose time and interest – all at the same time. it’s kind of overkill effect. so, i realized that if i start commenting without thinking very much about how best to put it, i flow freely, and i produce rich content. thank you. i’m always glad i found and followed you. you are my angel.

    • That sounds like a great strategy to simply write. I like it!

      Thank you for your kind words and for stopping by, Marcus. I appreciate it.

  23. Judith Fleischer says:

    This is so helpful..hits the nail dead center…it’s about letting go of the ‘inner censor’. What the hell difference does it make if I write a shitty sentence? Why not just let it out and clean it up later? Life is messy & I ‘m always trying too damn hard to make it neat!

    • That’s so true: “Why not just let it out and clean it up later?”

      Happy writing, Judith! And thank you for stopping by 🙂

  24. I don’t mind if people say something badly–but they have to be trying to say something important or meaningful.

    • Yep, I agree. There’s a trade off – the more meaningful something is, the easier it is to accept “bad” writing. But I do enjoy reading more when something is well-written. 🙂

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