Write Crappy First Drafts!

The first draft of anything is shit.”

–Ernest Hemingway

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

–Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

“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, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Blank Word document  Who likes facing the blank page?


Starting on a writing project is as much fun as scrubbing the toilet with a toothbrush. Even if you’ve been dreaming about the moment when you’ll get to start writing, once you actually sit down, crickets show up. That’s when the notion that you can write crappy first drafts comes in handy.


Because anything other than embracing the idea that the first draft doesn’t have to be good—that its job isn’t to be good—can prevent you from writing anything at all, even crap.

Many a deadline has been missed because the writer never got past the first draft. Many a writing project hasn’t been finished or even started because the writer never got past the first draft.

A writing teacher I had at a workshop some dozen years ago was the first person to clue me into the utter beauty of the lousy first draft.

She explained that writing has two phases: writing and editing. They are not the same phase. Writing is creating. Editing is fixing what you created. Blending them together is what gives us cramps worthy of drowning.

She had us draw a picture of our inner editor. This is the voice in our heads that yells at us when we’re writing. It’s the critical voice, the voice that tells us that what we’re saying isn’t good or clear. Not eloquent. Not elegant. Not readable. Just junk. Guess what? That voice keeps us from writing.

Mean librarian  My picture was of a mean librarian straight from some nightmare ’50s movie. (Imitated by yours truly in this photo…)

Then she had us draw a picture of the kindly, encouraging soul who loves everything we do. My picture was a motherly figure, smiling sweetly. She looked as happy as if she’d just eaten a chocolate truffle. Maybe several truffles.

The inner editor gets locked away when you’re writing. She/he is banned from your writing space. When you’re editing, okay, let her/him out of the closet and have at it. But not before then.

The kindly figure smiles down at you while you in the writing phase, so anything goes. Spit it out. Toss down every idea, chase every detour, embrace every word choice—good, bad, mediocre. Put it down and move on.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t think ahead of time about what you write. To be clear, free-writing from thin air is a better option for finding out what you might be interested in writing than for starting the first draft. In your brainstorming phase, you toy with ideas and options, but eventually you settle on a direction. That’s the time to begin the first draft, and that’s what I’m talking about here.

Here’s an example for fiction. Say you want to write a novel about a boy who loses his dog and runs away from home to find him. Before you start your first draft, you might jot down some notes about time and place, other characters, and so forth. Maybe you’ve decided the dog is scared of thunderstorms, and so is the boy. You’ve got some conflicts in mind. You’ve sorted out a basic plot before you start writing.

With your key ingredients at hand, you start cooking up a first draft of a first chapter, with your kindly figure smiling benevolently at every word.

It will suck.

Here’s an example for nonfiction. Say you want to create a course on start-up funding. You pin down your slant, sort out your main points for the first lesson, and start writing your first draft from a carefully considered organizational plan, with your kindly figure smiling benevolently at every word.

It will suck.

Hey, sorry, that’s just the nature of the beast. What I’m here to tell you is that that’s a good thing. The challenge is embracing it.

We’ve been conditioned to think that we should write something good. First time, every time. And that the first thing we write would hopefully be the only draft.

Bwa ha ha ha.

We’ve been the prisoners of the hope that it will be perfect. So we slave over writing everything just so, mixing writing with editing. We cross out or delete as we go, sweating to get everything just right. And everything we “fix” just muddles us more, blocks us more, makes us more uptight.

Because the job of the first draft isn’t to be right.

The job of the first draft is to get something written.

That’s it. Get something down. With our inner editor safely locked away, we’re free to let whatever we’re thinking flow onto the paper without having to be good.

When you’re done writing, away goes the sweet angel who thinks everything you write is golden, and out comes the inner editor to take a look.

What you’re looking for at that point is what it was you were trying to say. Buried in the draft amidst the detours and debris will be gems of ideas. Your real intent. What you really wanted to talk about.

Sometimes it’s not what you thought you were going to talk about. Sometimes it is. Regardless, the job of the first draft isn’t to be good or to be done. It’s to direct you to what you should write next. To cue up the second draft.

In this role, it’s a fantastic and exciting tool. When you stop trying to be perfect in that first draft and treat it as a map to your mind and imagination, you can conquer writer’s block, improve your writing, and have more fun with it.

Take a few minutes right now and sketch your inner editor. Then sketch your kindly, encouraging creator figure. When you are writing, keep Kindly One on your desk. Lock Inner Editor in a drawer.

Permission hereby granted not to be perfect the next time you write a first draft.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Please post your comments–I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for joining me in this week’s blog. Tune in next Friday for Issue #8 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll be shifting out to performance challenges, with tips that will help you in public speaking, teaching, and delivering content to video.

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  About Marcy McDonald

Online Course Producer

Check out my website: https://marcymcdonald.com

Tweet me @videosmarts

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