Shitty First Drafts: Why They Matter

“Was Hamlet Really Insane?” I scribbled as a title. I then tore the five handwritten pages from my spiral notebook, stapled the essay together and handed it to my 11th grade English teacher as I walked out the door. I had written it the night before and couldn’t think of a good title until the last minute. It was crap… all of it… but it didn’t matter. When you market yourself as a good writer, starting at age 9, teachers assume everything you hand in is gold.

Even shitty first drafts.

The world has changed since then. Essays and stories are no longer handwritten. Computers have backspace buttons. I can push ‘delete’ and wipe out an entire day’s worth of work. Skating by on shitty first drafts no longer works. Only the best will do.

A blinking cursor on a blank white screen can be terrifying. The moment you start typing, the blank page is no longer perfect. It’s no longer full of limitless possibilities. Some days, I sit and stare at my laptop screen and think to myself, “Whatever I put on this page is going to be crap.” Knowing that what I write is going to be terrible often keeps me from starting. I don’t want to deal with the fact that my first try is not going to be good enough.

It’s these insane expectations we have for ourselves that keep our asses out of our work chairs and in front of the television instead.

To Nappy Underwear and Word Vomit

Every writer… every single goddamn writer… cranks out lousy first drafts. While I don’t have the data to prove it, I’m pretty sure Dickens didn’t pull an all-nighter scribbling  ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ onto a shitload of fancy paper. He didn’t say, “Well, that’ll have to do, time for a beer,” and then skip down to the local pub. He rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. And produced one of the best works of literature I have ever read.

It takes me five hours to write a blog post. A fucking blog post! Some people take twice as long as I do. The first draft blows. I highlight in red all of the stuff  I can’t stand. Then I re-write. Some of the red goes away. I rewrite again. And again. If I think that my future self would read it and say aloud, “That wasn’t too bad,” then I publish it.

Every single day I write cringe-worthy stuff that makes me want to chuck my laptop into the street and hope it gets run over by a garbage truck. Stuff my 9-year-old self would say “sucks like a Hoover.” Most days I’m okay with sucking, because I know that if I wait for the Universe pull up to the curb, ring the doorbell and hand me a package of perfect sentences, I’ll waste a lifetime watching out the window for a truck that’s never going to come.

What First Drafts Are:

A purging of words. Just barf it up. Let it ooze onto the page. Get it all out. You’ll feel better.

Charlie Brown’s teacher. You don’t know what the hell she’s saying, but you’ll eventually figure it out.

A superconducting supercollider. Words and ideas are swirling around and colliding at high speeds. Be pleasantly surprised at what comes out of the chaos.

Meant to be shitty. You can’t get to great without first slogging through the less-than-great.

What First Drafts Are Not:

Final. You’re not carving anything into a rock wall.

Meant for anyone else’s eyes. A first draft is the nappy Granny underwear you’re wearing while you finish doing laundry.

A reflection of how good of a writer you are. Good writers write. They allow their ideas to spew forth without judgment. The polish comes later.

So, go ahead. Write shitty. Write the lousiest crap you can come up with. Fill the page with words that insult and rattle your intelligence. Be the crazy splatter artist who flings shit up onto the blank whiteness to see what sticks. Keep those fingers flying.

Laugh at how ridiculous it all is. Be grateful for your remarkable mind. And then…

Edit. Edit. Edit.

Dig in. Rearrange the bones. Chuck everything that is lame.

Because here’s what I know:

Brilliance comes on the rewrite.

5 comments leave a reply
  • October 16, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    Such great advice, Maisie! Particularly the purge of words tip.

    Back in one of my career adventures, as a TV writer, the best advice I ever got (which I apply to all my writing now whether or not there’s dialogue involved) was to just keep writing and don’t ever start editing until you’re done because if you do, you’ll never finish. And that then leads to the second best piece of advice I got which was that, at some point, it will be good enough but it will never be perfect – meaning, edit well but don’t edit to death.

    I love being a writer. And I find the humor in the truth that it never gets easier to do the un-self-censored first purge but the release is one of the greatest pleasures I’ve found.


    • October 17, 2014 at 10:42 am

      I totally agree, Emily! That moment when you hit “send” or “publish” is pure magic.


  • October 16, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    You know, I have the tendency to think that the writing process is effortless for every other writer and only extremely painful for me. I really love your writing, and it makes me feel better to read that you don’t churn these out in half an hour (I’m in the 4 hour range, too). Here’s to shitty first drafts! And second and third!


    • October 17, 2014 at 10:46 am

      HaHa, Beth… I totally get it! I used to think that good writers could just sit down and crank out solid gold shit. Now that I am completely entrenched in the writing profession, I’ve come to realize that every single one of us struggles with the process. It hurts so good, and that’s why we keep doing it. 🙂


  • October 20, 2014 at 11:56 am

    “Every single day, I write cringe-worthy stuff that makes me want to chuck my laptop into the street and hope it gets run over by a garbage truck.”

    That was the best! I so want to get to a point where I write with as much heart as you.

    I’m getting better at letting myself write bad first drafts. My inner perfectionist tries to edit as I write and it never goes well. I’ve also gone back to doing a handwritten outline, then typing the draft, printing and editing by hand. Stepping away from the computer and working by hand seems to calm me and help me focus more.


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