REALLY BAD FIRST DRAFTS

 

I hope you have been writing for at least 90 minutes each day of the break. And I hope that by now you have a really bad first draft. If not, we will start to hate you. "I know some very great writers....Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mention this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)" (Lamott, 1994, pp. 21-22).

Recall that one of the obstacles to writing is the fear that what we write will be terrible. It's a common fear. But think of it as a necessary first step in producing a good manuscript. "If you try to write and edit at the same time you will do neither well" (Sides, 1991). You have to write before you can revise and edit to get the draft you want.

Lamott has a chapter called "Shitty First Drafts" that describes the necessity of writing without perfection or editing: "Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. 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" (p. 22).

She describes her fear of doing even this: "Even after I'd been doing this for years, panic would set in. I'd try to write a lead, but instead I'd write a couple of dreadful sentences, xx them out, try again, xx everything out, and then feel despair and worry settle on my chest like an x-ray apron. It's over, I'd think, calmly. I'm not going to be able to get the magic to work again this time. I'm ruined. I'm through. I'm toast. Maybe, I'd think, I can get my old job back as a clerk-typist. But probably not. I'd get up and study my teeth in the mirror for a while. Then I'd stop, remember to breathe, make a few phone calls, hit the kitchen and chow down. Eventually I'd go back and sit down at my desk, and sigh for the next ten minutes. Finally I would pick up my one-inch picture frame, stare into it as if for the answer, and every time the answer would come: all I had to do was to write a really shitty first draft of, say, the opening paragraph. And no one was going to see it....The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I'd obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I'd worry that people would read what I'd written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot" (pp. 24-25).

That captures it pretty well, right? Especially for those of us who must work to manage perfectionistic tendencies, it helps to have as your goal today, “Write a really bad first draft.”

Many of us are better editors than writers. So we must first write without striving for perfection. "Just get it down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go - but there is no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages" (Lamott, 1994, p. 23).

By the way, throughout these columns I'll quote Lamott and others, and I'll recommend some good resources to help you with your writing and editing. But please note: Reading about writing does not count as your 90 minutes of writing. Organizing your desk does not count as writing. Reading, typing, and editing your notes do not count as writing. Not even composing mentally while you wash the dishes constitutes writing. Writing is fingers on keyboard or pen to paper and producing. Even producing really bad first drafts.

[I sat down late last night with only 15 minutes to write. I wrote for 90 minutes before I looked at the clock. Have you written your 90 or 15 minutes today?]

Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York: Anchor Books.

Sides, C. (1991). How to write and present technical information. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Some of the information in the BreakWriting postings is drawn from previously published work, and I have tried to properly attribute the ideas and work of others. If I fail to do so, please tell me so I can clarify and correct (Graduate Mentor).

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