Why a bad first draft is the first step to good writing

Getting a very rough initial version down on paper—or on screen—is essential to success. It gives you a foothold. The most important work comes in the editing/rewriting phase, anyway.

People often laugh when I use the phrase “crappy first draft,” but I’m serious about it.

Producing one will turn you into a professional writer.

Most beginning writers abhor the idea of a crappy first draft. It’s humiliating. They know their boss or client is going to hate it. They’re going to hate it themselves. They fear it will make them look inept, so they don’t want to it exist on their hard drive, even for a nanosecond.

If this is your belief, you’re wrong. You should love your crappy first draft. You should worship it. You should create it as soon as you can.

Here are five reasons why the crappy first draft is so important:

1. It will help you write faster. If your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, you can write in about half the time; you won’t have to edit while you write. Many writers torture themselves, trying to squeeze out the perfect word or craft the best possible syntax in each sentence. Instead, leave that work for later, when you’re editing.

2. It will make you feel better about yourself. We all make mistakes. We all, inevitably, write crappy first drafts. As Anne Lamott puts it: “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” Feeling contented and confident—which is what you’ll be when you write faster—is essential to progress. We don’t feel happy because we accomplish things. We accomplish things when we feel happy. Do whatever it takes to feel good; then write. A crappy first draft is an excellent starting point.

3. It will create momentum. When I learned to canoe, the most useful instruction I received was to sync my paddle with my partner’s. If we didn’t do that, we’d lose the “glide”—the time where our canoe slipped through the water with virtually no effort on our part. If you focus on producing a perfect first draft, you’ll lose the momentum of words piling up, like cordwood or snow. If you start writing lots of words, you’ll get even more words, faster. (This seems counterintuitive, but it works.) Once you have a pile of words, you can edit them. Until you have that pile, you have only blank space, and who can edit that?

4. It will free up more time to edit. The best writers don’t have superior thoughts or extraordinary talent. They have a greater commitment to rewriting. Most people don’t rewrite nearly enough, in part because they don’t have enough time. If you can cut your writing time in half and reallocate it to editing, you’ll be making a good start. I agree with E.B. White, who said, “The best writing is rewriting.”

5. It will help you with your planning. You might break an ankle, make a friend or eat something unhealthy by accident, but no one writes by accident. It’s a deliberate activity, and it requires planning. If you plan for your crappy first draft, you’ll manage yourself better. I know, for example, that it takes me 30 minutes to write 500 to 750 crappy words. This knowledge helps me plan my day.

If you abhor a crappy first draft, I ask:

  • Who else will see your crappy first draft?
  • If no one else will see it, why does it matter? (You can always shred it later.)
  • If you’re more concerned with how you look than what you do, can’t you just pretend that the crappy first draft never existed? (What’s to stop it from being your own secret?)
  • Do you think you’ll be able to reduce your editing time by writing a perfect first draft? (Every first draft, crappy or not, has to be edited.)
  • Do you want to spend more time writing than is absolutely necessary?

Have you embraced your crappy first draft yet? We can all help one another, so please share your thoughts in the comments below.

A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach. Follow her on Twitter @PubCoach. A version of this post first appeared on Publication Coach.

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