The Shitty First Draft

A blue outlined book with a blue question mark hovering over it.

I’m procrastinating on writing book two, which got me thinking about how I draft books, so I thought I’d talk about it a little bit. As with all writing advice, use what works for you and ignore the rest. :)

There are as many schools of thought on writing as there are writers, but first drafts generally fall into two broad categories: just get it done (aka the “shitty first draft,” as expressed by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird) and …not that.

Many, many, many advice articles advocate for the shitty first draft, and they aren’t wrong, exactly, because once you get the words down, you can fix them later. Editing (for me) is far easier than initial drafting, so I can see the appeal.

And much to my eternal regret, I am completely unable to do it.

I can occasionally write fast, if I’m up against a deadline and force myself to—especially toward the end of a book when I have a better grasp of the characters and plot—but generally my writing moves at the speed tectonic plates shift.

The shitty first draft is supposed to fix this glacial dribble of words, but my writing has a rhythm to it, an ebb and flow that I just can’t get right when I try to draft fast, without editing or stopping, and it completely derails me. Instead of a shitty first draft, I end up writing no first draft and that isn’t an improvement.

I am completely, unbelievably envious of the writers who can crank out a first draft in a week or two or four. That’s basically magic as far as I’m concerned.

But everything always looks greener on the other side of the fence, and my way of drafting has its own benefits, because while I write at the speed mountains grow, I do tend to turn out solid first drafts.

My first drafts aren’t perfect by any means, no writing is, but they generally only need a single editing pass before I feel comfortable sending them off to my editor. Shitty first drafts often go through two or three editing passes before the editor sees the work, and those edits tend to be a lot more intense.

So which is better?

Neither. Both. It depends on the writer, and sometimes, the project. For me, slow and steady drafts get me to the end. For someone else, my style of drafting would kill them dead and they just want to get words on the page and fix them later. Figuring out which style works for you is part of the process of learning how you write.

Now go make some words happen—fast or slow, it doesn’t matter, just write. Because one thing always remains true: words won’t write themselves.

Unfortunately. :)

8 thoughts on “The Shitty First Draft”

  1. I was never able to do that “first rough draft” for high school and college papers. I tended to write and correct as I went. It was slower, but I always felt much more accomplished with a better turned out paper by taking my time and “fixing” as I went. I was the bane of more than a few teachers who wanted that rough first draft as proof that it was being worked on/my actual work, but I just couldn’t give it to them. However, since my final papers typically ended up with an A, I eventually would argue them around to that fact that wasn’t my process and to leave me be.

  2. I don’t work in writing like you, I work in translation, but I’m right with you. I hate, hate doing a shitty first draft. I rather work at it slow, getting the words right, and not spending much time in revisions, than cranking out a translation that’s gonna make spend near twice as much as usual to fix it. I hate this sometimes when the deadline is tight, because revising and proof-reading something is still quicker than writing it, but every time I try doing it that way, I die a little bit inside. Something about finding stupid mistakes and having to look something over way too many times makes me wanna rip my hairs out 😂

  3. Hmm I don’t write creatively, but as a business analyst/engineering manager I write a lot of documentation and specifications. Now that I think about it, I write more or less like I code: first write pseudo code/short notes to get most of the thoughts out, go back and fill out sentences, slap them into shape, organize, move things around, go through and edit several times… I think this makes me a “shitty first draft” person.

    Sometimes I do write things other than docs and specs: emails or essays on personal topics. Those I write very differently: I think about them for a long time, sometimes days, writing paragraphs in my head in the shower before getting them down in electronic form. Those turn out pretty solid.

    So maybe I’m really both? 🤷🏻‍♀️

    1. My coding is definitely more iterative! Pretty much every project starts with a “hello, world” equivalent and builds from there. :) And a million years ago when I had to write specs, they were the same: start with a high-level overview first, then drill down into the details.

  4. FWIW, I only write technical stuff too, reports and proposals and stuff like that. And I’ve always written by picturing the graphs and figures and visual stuff that will convey my main messages, almost like picturing the Powerpoint version. And if I get those solid, and in order, then it’s always been super easy to write the stuff in between. Although I’ve never (since college, anyway) tried creative writing, now I wonder if it might be fun to try again, by “picturing” various key scenes and get those sort of written, and then fill in the in-between parts. Aaaagh – clearly I have no idea what I’m talking about, but I definitely think really visually, and wonder how that might work. But I suspect I’ll stick to reading :-)

    1. A lot of authors write creatively this way! They write the big scenes first, the ones they’re most excited about, and then they go back and stitch everything together at the end. So don’t give up yet. :)

  5. This really made me smile Jessie – I think it was the tectonic plates :)
    Quick question if you’re busy putting off book two … Do you use any particular software for your first draft?

    1. I use Scrivener for all of my drafting, then I export to Word for my editor/agent because all of publishing runs on Word. I’ll probably do a blog post with more info (thanks for the idea!), so keep an eye out. :)

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