Drafting: The Theory of Shitty First Drafts
Writing books often exhort you to “write a shitty first draft,” but I always resisted this advice. After all,
- I was already writing shitty drafts, even when I tried to write good ones. Why go out of my way to make them shittier?
- A shitty first draft just kicks the can down the road, doesn’t it? Sooner or later, I’d have to write a good draft—why put it off?
- If I wrote without judging what I wrote, how would I make any creative choices at all?
- That first draft inevitably obscured my original vision, so I wanted it to be at least slightly good.
- Writing something shitty meant I was shitty.
So for years, I kept writing careful, cramped, painstaking first drafts—when I managed to write at all. At last, writing became so joyless, so draining, so agonizing for me that I got desperate: I either needed to quit writing altogether or give the shitty-first-draft thing a try.
Turns out everything I believed about drafting was wrong.
For the last six months, I’ve written all my first drafts in full-on don’t-give-a-fuck mode. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
“Shitty first draft” is a misnomer
A rough draft isn’t just a shitty story, any more than a painter’s preparatory sketch is just a shitty painting. Like a sketch, a draft is its own kind of thing: not a lesser version of the finished story, but a guide for making the finished story.
Once I started thinking of my rough drafts as preparatory sketches, I stopped fretting over how “bad” they were. Is a sketch “bad”? And actually, a rough draft can be beautiful the same way a sketch is beautiful: it has its own messy energy.
Don’t try to do everything at once
People who make complex things need to solve one kind of problem before they can solve others. A painter might need to work out where the big shapes go before they can paint the details. A writer might need to decide what two people are saying to each other before they can describe the light in the room or what those people are doing with their hands.
I’d always embraced this principle up to a point. In the early stages, I’d speculate and daydream and make messy notes. But that freedom would end as soon as I started drafting. When you write a scene, I thought, you have to start with the first word and write the rest in order. Then it dawned on me: nobody would ever see this! I could write the dialogue first and the action later; or the action first and the dialogue later; or some dialogue and action first and then interior monologue later; or I could write the whole thing like I was explaining the plot to my friend over the phone. The draft was just one very long, very detailed note to myself. Not a story, but a preparatory sketch for a story. Why not do it in whatever weird order made sense to me?
Get all your thoughts onto the page
Here’s how I used to write: I’d sit there staring at the screen and I’d think of something—then judge it, reject it, and reach for something else, which I’d most likely reject as well—all without ever fully knowing what those things were. And once you start rejecting thoughts, it’s hard to stop. If you don’t write down the first one, or the second, or the third, eventually your thought-generating mechanism jams up. You become convinced you have no thoughts at all.
When I compare my old drafts with my new ones, the old ones look coherent enough. They’re presentable as stories. But they suck as drafts, because I can’t see myself thinking in them. I have no idea what I wanted that story to be. These drafts are opaque and airless, inscrutable even to me, because a good 90% of what I was thinking while I wrote them never made it onto the page.
These days, most of my thoughts go onto the page, in one form or another. I don’t waste time figuring out how to say something, I just ask, “what are you trying to say here?” and write that down. Because this isn’t a story, it’s a plan for a story, so I just need the words to be clear, not beautiful. The drafts I write now are full of placeholders and weird meta notes, but when I read them, I can see where my mind is going. I can see what I’m trying to do. Consequently, I no longer feel like my drafts obscure my original vision. In fact, their whole purpose is to describe that vision.
Drafts are memos to future-you
To draft effectively, you need a personal drafting style or “language” to communicate with your future self (who is, of course, the author of your second draft). This language needs to record your ideas quickly so it can keep up with the pace of your imagination, but it needs to do so in a form that will make sense to you later. That’s why everyone’s drafts look different: your drafting style has to fit the way your mind works.
I’m still working mine out. Honestly, it might take a while. But recently, I started writing in fragments. That’s just how my mind works: I get pieces of sentences before I understand how to fit them together. Wrestling with syntax was slowing me down, so now I just generate the pieces and save their logical relationships for later. Drafting effectively means learning these things about yourself. And to do that, you can’t get all judgmental. You can’t fret over how you should be writing, you just gotta get it done.
Messy drafts are easier to revise
I find that drafting quickly and messily keeps the story from prematurely “hardening” into a mute, opaque object I’m afraid to change. I no longer do that thing, for instance, where I endlessly polish the first few paragraphs of a draft without moving on. Because how do you polish a bunch of fragments taped together with dashes? A draft that looks patently “unfinished” stays malleable, makes me want to dig my hands in and move stuff around.
You already have ideas
Sitting down to write a story, I used to feel this awful responsibility to create something good. Now I treat drafting simply as documenting ideas I already have—not as creation at all, but as observation and description. I don’t wait around for good words or good ideas. I just skim off whatever’s floating on the surface and write it down. It’s that which allows other, potentially better ideas to surface.
As a younger writer, my misery and frustration perpetuated themselves: suppressing so many thoughts made my writing cramped and inhibited, which convinced me I had no ideas, which made me even more afraid to write lest I discover how empty inside I really was. That was my fear, I guess: if I looked squarely at my innocent, unvetted, unvarnished ideas, I’d see how bad they truly were, and then I’d have to—what, pack up and go home? Never write again? I don’t know. But when I stopped rejecting ideas and started dumping them onto the page, the worst didn’t happen. In fact, it was a huge relief.
Next post: the practice of shitty first drafts