First drafts don’t have to be any good

This recent comment has stayed with me (be sure to check out the commenter’s fun “about” page and her recent post on making changes when we’re older):

[I]t’s very useful to be reminded it actually takes very little effort to begin a writing exercise. And that it doesn’t have to be any good.

That last part is so important to remember: Often we never begin––whether it’s a big or small writing project––because of the mistaken idea that we need to get it perfect the first time. One of the best discussions on this topic comes from Anne Lamott in her must-read book on writing, Bird by Bird:

On Shitty First Drafts: All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”

So, when you sit down today to write, remember that if you feel unsure of yourself and your talent, discouraged by the naysayers (whether out there or in your head), and terrified of not getting it right, know that all writers feel the same way. Your job is simply to write, imperfectly at first, maybe even incompetently at times. You can fix it later.

I see this issue time and time again in my college classes. Often even very talented students don’t give themselves a chance of doing their best work because they think their first draft has to be good. So they put off writing their essays and reports until their only choice is to hand in their first draft as a final draft because they’ve left themselves no time for revision.

For even more inspiration on messy beginnings and the value of planning, see J. K. Rowling’s revision of the plan of Order of the Phoenix, and be sure to look at the screenshot image of Rowling’s chart and changes.

17 thoughts on “First drafts don’t have to be any good

  1. ‘It doesn’t have to be any good.’

    Thanks Lisa, it is a relief to actually read these words.

    People often think that a blogpost is written in five minutes, that it miraculously appears on the screen without any effort. How wrong!

    Great post and very true!

  2. I think of writing (words) much like writing a song. True, you don’t just write the whole tune with chord changes, vocal melodies, bass lines, rhythm and solos, drum beats *in one sitting* (not unless you’re Robert Plant and Jimmy Page writing “Stairway to Heaven” by a roaring medieval fireplace in a haunted mansion).

    First a riff hits you, or a melody or a chord progression – the inspiration. Then you have to put in the work to flesh that out, give it color and tweak out all of those little things that bother you when you re-listen.

    YvF

    • Words as a riff or bit of melody that we find here and there… that’s a wonderful analogy and can help us to see the complexities of what goes into a finished piece. Thank you! 🙂

  3. It’s so good to read those words.
    I’m getting close to the end of my first draft. And though I know it doesn’t have to be perfect, part of me still wants it to be – which just adds unnecessary tension.
    Thanks for the great post! 🙂

  4. Thank you! This is so important to remember. I was introduced to a great resource: Professors As Writers (http://www.amazon.com/Professors-Writers-Self-Help-Productive-Writing/dp/091350713X), which contains the blocking questionnaire, a tool to diagnose barriers to writing. I always thought I was a professional procrastinator but found as a result of this questionnaire that perfectionism was more of a problem for me. It caused me to delay writing until I had no time to revise, as you mention you’ve observed in your students. Thanks again for a great post. I love your blog!

    • Professors as Writers is a book I’m not familiar with, so thank you for the recommendation! I agree that recognizing perfectionism (it can be sneaky) is a huge step toward making changes in our habits. For me, it’s definitely a work in progress.

      Thank you so much for the generous and encouraging words about my blog. 🙂

  5. I love what Andrew said. Some days I read my draft and think…”Perfect! I don’t have to change a thing, editing is done!” Then a few days later I come back and think…”wth! This is crapola!” I once asked a prof of mine “when do you know when your done editing?” He said…”never. Your never done editing.”

    • Isn’t that the truth! What’s the line–writing is never finished, it’s just abandoned at a convenient point? Or something like that. 🙂

  6. I’ve worked with many New York Times bestselling authors and every now and then I get to watch their first draft progress to the final version that appears in print… And I can tell you that very, very, very few authors write perfect 1st drafts. Heck, few authors write perfect FINAL drafts. 😉

    Sometimes I think the most important thing is sitting yourself down and writing whatever you’re going to write. The editing and perfecting can be done later.

    • Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts! It’s very helpful to know that the process doesn’t magically get easy after one is published.

  7. As someone who has yet to finish a novel off his own back reading all these comments has been very encouraging.

    With the advent of word processing software it’s never been easier to revise early work. Gone are the days of getting high off correction fluid fumes…

    • I agree that the comments are terrific! And I do remember pounding out drafts on a typewriter with strips of correction tape at my side.

      Gotta love Hemingway. 🙂

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