Shitty First Drafts

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. A lot of people never get past this phase, and they quit. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have…Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. You’ve just gotta fight your way through. — Ira Glass 

Several weeks ago, Matt talked about the importance of “fighting through perfect in the pursuit of getting shit done” – how done is better than perfect, how persistence allows for results, and how seeking “perfect” will, inevitably, only hold you back creatively.

When it comes to writing, many people say they don’t know where to begin. Or they labor over each word, striving to make it sound “just right.” Too often we allow the pursuit of perfect to hold us back.

In an interview on Jonathan Fields’ Goodlife Project, Brene Brown shared about “trusting the process of emergence.” Emergence is defined as “the process of coming into view.” In writing, the best ideas and sentences rarely find themselves on the page during the first draft. Instead, they come into view after further articulating and refining your work.

Novels, magazines, newspapers, blog posts–they’re all edited. Usually, multiple times. Which means that every writer and reporter started with a first draft. And I would bet that many of those writers would agree–their first drafts were shit. It’s important to remember that’s part of the process. As Ira Glass shares, neither the creative nor their work are perfect from the starting line. It takes pushing through deadlines and frustrations to reach the finish line and close the gap.

Heck, even Hemingway said, “All first drafts are shit.”

How to Power Through the First Draft

Know the ‘Why”

At Proof, we value the “why” behind the “what.” It’s a question we are constantly asking ourselves, and it’s essential to our content strategy.

Before you begin writing, narrow down your strategy. Is the article informative or humorous? Who is your audience? What is the one thing you want them to take away?

It’s crucial to be able to answer these types of questions, so that you are able to focus your direction and formulate a cohesive piece of writing.

Make an Outline

I’m the biggest supporter of outlines. Why? Because I’ve seen them work time and time again.

You may be thinking that outlines are added work, or that they’re unnecessary for short blog posts and business writing. The reality is, the extra time you take in planning the order and flow of information, will allow you to save time restructuring your writing later. You also have the opportunity to view gaps within your argument or pinpoint additional research that needs to be completed.

More importantly, outlines can help you push through creative blocks. Because you’ve already articulated the general layout of information, you are able to jump around as you write. Stuck writing that next sentence? Move forward and revisit the argument once you’ve had time to process and expand your narrative.

Write in Your Voice

Here’s where I pound the old adage of “be yourself”. It’s easy to mimic the authorship of someone we aspire to be. Perhaps you think they sound more personal, more eloquent, or more humorous. And that’s one of the benefits of reading–as we become increasingly exposed to writers with unique styles of communicating, our creativity is stretched. We are inspired to be better.

But don’t let your voice—the thing that makes you uniquely valuable to an audience—get lost because you are striving to write “better”.

In fact, when we lose our voice, we lose the ability to write fluidly and without inhibition. We begin to filter and overthink. It’s then that writing becomes a chore.

Set Aside Time

One of my biggest hurdles when it comes to writing is just making time. That’s why my best writing doesn’t happen at the office. It happens on the days we work remotely. That’s when I’m able to settle in at a local coffee shop, slough off (most) distractions, put in my headphones, and put pen to paper.

Last week, Lesley wrote about how she blocks time for projects. I’ve found this practice is especially helpful when it comes to writing. By setting aside a specific block of time to allow myself to research and develop thoughtful content, writing becomes more natural.

In fact, dedicating time is a big push for National Novel Writing Month. Participants commit themselves to a specific, and often audacious, word count goal to reach in one month so they can finish that novel they’ve always been dreaming of. What time do you need to accomplish your goals?

Just Start

Whether you’re having a creative block, don’t know where to begin, or don’t have the time, my advice to you is just start. Ignore the pursuit of perfect, and begin. The first draft will not be as brilliant and eloquent as you had hoped–but it’s an essential part of the process. So, go ahead. Write that shitty first draft.

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

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