Shitty First Drafts

Today was a shitty first drafts kind of day. 

That’s writerese for “write a bad first draft and edit it later.” Hemingway would put it simpler, “Write drunk, edit sober.” The term was coined by Anne Lamott. If you have any interest in writing at all, please read her book Bird by BirdIt’s a hilariously irreverent guidebook to the writer in all of us. 

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My shitty first draft day included zero writing. It was full of job searching and disappointing responses. I got an email right away in the morning saying that I had been passed up for a job I was really looking forward to interviewing for. Then I got another email saying I’m not qualified for a different job and another call saying that this wouldn’t be a good fit for the company. 

I’m not completely unemployable, but days like today make me question that. 

So that’s my shitty first draft. Tomorrow (or perhaps Monday; I don’t want to work on the weekend!) I will do better. I won’t be a complete pessimist and I will try to sell myself another day. 

But that brings me to another first draft. 

A friend told me the other day that he is good at telling stories, but he’s not good at writing them. “How do I get better at that aspect?” 

Good question. How does one get good at writing? 

It goes back to the shitty first draft. Write the story as you think of it, and then go back to it. I always try to reread my work the moment I’m finished with it, but for whatever reason, I cannot concentrate on the story. As I reread it my mind thinks, “You just wrote this. You don’t need to read it again.” So I end up skimming it and missing all of the grammatical errors and sentences that don’t make sense. I completely rely on my editor to do that for me. Yes, for those who asked, my editor moonlights as my wife. 

The other issue I run into is missing essential aspects of the story that I didn’t write down. I tell a story about running away from thugs in Calais, France, but I miss the part where a dog starts chasing the thieves. “How did you get away?!” Oh yeah. The dog…

But that’s the beauty of writing. I can tell and retell and embellish as many times as I want before anyone reads the story. But it always begins with a first draft. Until that first sentence is written out, I don’t have anything to work on. 

So writer friends, write it down. If you go back a week later and hate it, trash it. Try again. Try a different story. But remember, it’s your story. No one else is going to tell it for you. 

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4 comments

  1. Yes! I agree with all of above :) Well, almost all. I’m vehemently opposed to reading or editing a draft before something is actually finished – so much so that it can become a problem remembering nuances of the story if I put the project down for a while.

    As for getting good at writing, my thought is that it’s like anything else. Practice, and learning from others that you admire.

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      1. Yes, I definitely work off an outline, but that’s more about major and minor plot points. By nuance, I mean more like…was there, say, an underlying tone to a lot of the dialogue in the last twenty pages that I – now having set aside the project for three weeks – fail to recall as I start again. That’s the tricky part of *not* going back and editing until you’re finally finished. Other than that, I think that not editing until the very end of a draft works best for me :)

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