“I would love for this draft to be shitty”… said just about nobody ever.
No matter the topic or length or intention for the piece, writing begins with a first draft that usually leaves much to be desired. But it is this first draft that is the most important, for, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts” (Bird by Bird). Writing is one of those things that is really fun when everything is going well, but instantly becomes a miserable experience when faced with a speed bump in the road. Writing begins with a simple idea that slowly grows throughout the writing process. As more time is spent with it and more attention is given, the piece takes on a personality of its own, almost as if it were a living entity itself. And eventually it matures into a gorgeous masterpiece.
Anne Lamott is a writer and novelist, and in her book Bird by Bird she describes the need for what she refers to as “shitty first drafts”. Below is an excerpt from that book.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
(Bird by Bird)
Down drafts, up drafts, dental drafts – sounds like a blast. And maybe that’s the key to writing, that it’s not always fun. Sometimes it’s difficult, messy, aggravating, frustrating, plus whatever four letter word you would like to insert. But it’s important. It’s important to write and it’s important to be able to write well.
Although not using the exact same words, my social studies teacher from high school would refer to first drafts as letting your brain throw up. It’s a strange concept to realize, but at least in my experience the best ideas, the most perfect sentences and eloquent words, have come from simply letting my brain throw up on the paper and then searching for those precious gems in all the vomit, as opposed to not putting anything down on paper and hoping that the gems will reveal themselves on their own.
In the book Lamott also mentions how even great writers have to go through the pain of first drafts. For me personally, when I think of great writers I automatically think of J.K. Rowling (through seven books, the woman created a world of magic that influenced an entire generation). And imagining Rowling having to throw up on her paper or having to reshape an entire chapter or even having an editor mark up her manuscript with blood red ink (gasp!), sort of makes me smile a bit. If great writers didn’t have to go through first drafts, then Rowling would be able to sit down, write a book, then send it straight to the printers, no questions asked. And I think even those most envious of the women’s talents knows that that’s not how things work.
Now granted, her first draft may be a lot better than your first draft. To you her first draft may even look like a perfect first draft. But it’s still a shitty first draft at the end of the day. If shitty first drafts are just a thing of life, then being a good writer, even a great writer, is not about being immune to those shitty first drafts, but rather being able to make those first drafts a little less shittier.
How a draft goes from a pile of shit to a hanging Picasso is different for every piece you’ll ever write – an individual will never go through the writing process exactly the same way twice. It could take weeks to edit the paper you write for class while the article you write for the school’s paper could take a matter of hours to fine tune.
Something I’ve learned about writing is that part of being a great writer is simply respecting the writing process itself. That includes acknowledging that writing takes time, not becoming defeated when the piece isn’t as good as hoped for, being open to criticism during edits even when convinced that the piece is perfect, accepting the fact that sometimes the best thing to do is to spend some time away from it all, and yes, understanding the importance of first drafts.
In short, let the first draft be shitty and trust that the writing process will guide you through the rest.
This post was partly inspired by a professor at my school who uses Lamott’s “shitty first draft” concept in her teachings (which is where I first learned about Lamott). A previous post, In The Face Of Shit, was a piece written for the writing portfolio my school requires all students to turn in and this professor just so happens to be in charge of helping students pass that portfolio.
When this semester began I told her I wanted to write my piece on Death of A Salesman. On Monday of the fifth week into the semester, I told her, fully aware of submission being due on Friday of that same week, that I hated my paper and didn’t want to write about Death of A Salesman anymore. I think most people, including myself at the time, would have had a near heart attack when facing the possibility of scrapping an entire paper that had been developing for over a month, and needed to be completed by the end of the week. When I told the professor, she responded without any hesitation or uncertainty with, “Sure. What do you want to write about instead?”.
Two things dawned on me at that moment:
1) No matter how far a piece has come or what has gone into it, the piece will never be the best it can be if the person holding the pen doesn’t like what they’re writing about. Never be afraid to completely tear down a paper and start from scratch again. It’ll get there in the end but it has to start from a good place – that good place being the motivated mindset of the writer.
2) Getting students to pass the portfolio is a high priority for this professor, but a priority that is equally as important to her, perhaps even more important, is giving students the chance to simply write about something they enjoy. And if that doesn’t make for an A-class writing professor, I don’t know what does.
Housekeeping Note: In case you’re wondering, the idea for In The Face Of Shit came in a random moment while I was watching clips from SNL (I guess Melissa McCarthy has a special way of inspiring people), and the entire paper was written in twelve hours before the deadline. In essence, a thirteen page paper that had been scrutinized over for nearly five weeks was beaten out by a six page paper written on a whim and a lot of coffee. Writing can be a funny thing sometimes.