Sh***y First Drafts is Bad Advice


By far the worst piece of writ­ing advice I see from blogs and inter­net per­son­al­i­ties is to “just write a shit­ty first draft.” This goes close­ly with all the advice online about writ­ing quick­ly, get­ting your nov­el done in 10 days (or what­ev­er arbi­trary time frame sells at the time), or writ­ing 1,000,000 words per year. When we give peo­ple this advice and they roll with it, their word counts may increase day-to-day but I often fear that the sum total qual­i­ty of their sto­ry­telling is suf­fer­ing. It’s not that “shut up and write” is bad advice, it’s that when we fail to empha­size how impor­tant prac­tice is in get­ting bet­ter, we pro­mote a cul­ture of “get it done quick”—which kills the sto­ry. 

Stop Killing the Story

Shit­ty first drafts kill the sto­ry. I’m sor­ry, but if your solu­tion to being unable to “flesh out” a “sog­gy mid­dle” is to just add crap until you’re done, you’re not being a very good sto­ry­teller. Instead of writ­ing crap, why not take the time to write some­thing good?

What would have a greater impact in a sto­ry: one well writ­ten sen­tence that took eight min­utes to write, or eight sen­tences that took one min­ute to write? Think about that for a moment. Writ­ing is like sculpt­ing: chis­el away at the page until the shapes and sounds and mean­ing of the let­ters come togeth­er to tell that sto­ry. Tell the sto­ry; stop killing the sto­ry!

Sculpt with a Chisel, not More Rock

Writ­ing a good sto­ry is like chis­el­ing the emp­ty pages away with let­ters. It’s an artis­tic process of expres­sion, so treat it like one. Don’t vom­it words onto paper to fill the gaps between the begin­ning and the end; sculpt your sto­ry out of the blank page, piece by piece, care­ful­ly shap­ing the stone until you can go over it with a small­er chis­el and carve out the fin­er details. If one part of it takes a long time, then so be it.

Have you head that sto­ry about James Joyce?

A friend came to vis­it James Joyce one day and found the great man sprawled across his writ­ing desk in a pos­ture of utter despair.
‘James, what’s wrong?’ the friend asked. ‘Is it the work?’
Joyce indi­cat­ed assent with­out even rais­ing his head to look at his friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
How many words did you get today?’ the friend pur­sued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled face­down on his desk): ‘Sev­en.’
Sev­en? But James… that’s good, at least for you.’
Yes,’ Joyce said, final­ly look­ing up. ‘I sup­pose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”

Chas­ing a word count is only going to lead you to mad­ness. Give your­self per­mis­sion to treat the pages like stone, and the words like the result of fine taps on the chis­el.

In George Dila’s Rethink­ing the Shit­ty First Draft, we’re remind­ed that the often-cit­ed Hem­ing­way quote–“The first draft of any­thing is shit”–may have been mis­con­strued by the gen­er­al pub­lic as being per­mis­sion to for­go pride in one’s work and just write garbage.

Imag­ine paint­ing a pic­ture, and instead of think­ing delib­er­ate­ly about what the final result is going to be, you just apply strokes here and there with­out any real regard to how those strokes are going to affect the final pro­duct. One thing I’ve learned from watch­ing Bob Ross on Net­flix is that you always start with the foun­da­tion of bright­ness and col­or. With­out that, you end up wast­ing time lat­er as you try to make up for past mis­takes.

It’s an easy thing to fix; stop telling your­self that it’s okay to write shit­ty first drafts. Your sto­ry is sculpt­ed on the page, and by giv­ing your­self per­mis­sion to just write what­ev­er with­out any regard to the final pro­duct, you’re essen­tial­ly mak­ing your­self have to carve this sculp­ture more than once.

Can we ever get an amaz­ing first draft? I doubt it. Hem­ing­way wasn’t wrong in that regard. But what we can do is get rid of the notion that it’s okay to just write garbage.

Absolute Advice is Not Real

The whole “write shit­ty first drafts” thing may work for some peo­ple, but for new writ­ers I think we’re putting it into their heads that it’s okay to treat writ­ing as a process of achiev­ing a word count instead of a process of self-expres­sion. May­be I’m biased from the peo­ple I have worked with, or may­be I have just seen too many peo­ple dis­miss their lack of com­mit­ment and desire to real­ly engross them­selves into their work by chalk­ing it up to the “nec­es­sary” shit­ty first draft.

The first draft of any­thing is shit, but that doesn’t mean we should strive for shit when we write.


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