A friend asked me just last week for the best piece of advice I could give to a person who wanted to be a better writer. My response?

Don’t be afraid to write shitty first drafts. (Disclosure: this is not a new concept.)

On the first day of every semester, I hand my students an excerpt from Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird called “Shitty First Drafts.” This is especially effective in freshman comp, and not just because I am saying the word “shit” on the first day of class (the students never fail to snicker when I say it), but because most 18-year-olds these days come to college programmed with the 5-paragraph-essay formula. What a horrible, horrible thing to program high school students with.

Sometimes I even make them read an essay called “Un-teaching the Five Paragraph Essay.” But that tends to be a bit over their head, what with the pedagogical theory and all. They just want me to tell them what to write about, tell them how to write it and then tell them how to fix it.

Sounds kinda like the simplified version of the 5-paragraph essay: Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, tell ’em what you told ’em.

Except not every writing problem can be solved with the 5-paragraph formula.

Look!

I’m already on paragraph number 8 and, what do you know? One of those paragraphs is only one sentence long, and another is only (gasp!) one word!

Whatever is an 18-year-old in freshman comp going to do with that? Worse yet, what is a 30-something grad student who never un-learned the 5-paragraph essay going to do?

Write shitty first drafts, I say!

When I talk to people who say they have a “hard time writing,” most often it’s because they won’t get out of their own way. It’s the perception that as soon as something is written, it has to be perfect and final. But nothing is farther from the truth.

Here’s the thing: if you want to improve your writing, you have to have some writing to improve. There is nothing to improve on a blank page. So get some shit down on the page, and then work on improving it. It really is that simple. As long as you let yourself write some shit. YOU have to let yourself write some shit.

I’m not saying it’s easy. But I am saying that if you can be OK with less-than-perfect even for just a little while, your writing will improve exponentially.

2 thoughts on “Shitty First Drafts

  1. Thanks for reminding me of this concept. I first heard it from Doug Herndon, who, at that time, was teaching English at Sac City College. I took an evening class from him on getting published in magazines that he happened to be teaching at U.C. Davis.

    So far I have a few newspaper clips, no magazine success, but a blog that keeps me writing shitty first drafts (and sometimes second, third, …)

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