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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Shitty First Drafts

As you might imagine, I am of two minds about the concept of "shitty first drafts." The idea, from the writer Anne Lamott, is that "All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts." The advantage of this approach is that it frees the writer from having to worry about the quality of the first draft. Even a good writer's first draft will be shitty, according to this logic, and so the difference is that the good writer writes something, even if it is shitty, and then revises it until it is good and then excellent. The bad writer presumably either writes nothing in the first place, or does not know how to revise. For the writer terrified of putting words down on paper, the notion of a shitty first draft is wonderfully freeing. This approach works for many people.

So what's the problem? At some point the writer needs to learn to write, not just revise. The first drafts will not be perfect, but they will not be shitty either. Revision will still be necessary, but much less. The experienced writer will avoid certain kinds of mistakes on the first draft. After all, if you can't write, you won't be able to revise either, because re-writing is still a form of writing. A good writer needs to know the feeling of composing a good sentence, once in a while, on the first try. I'd much rather have a model that emphasizes the development of the writer's competence.

If I find I have written a really shitty draft, what I do is discard it and start again from scratch with the same ideas but different words. Looking at my own crappy sentences is far from inspiring. Those crappy sentences don't suggest better ones to my imagination. In fact, there is a danger in revising sentences that were never destined to be great in the first place. If a sentence really isn't working, the problem is not a cosmetic one that can be fixed by revision. Erase it completely and write what you really meant to say.

Maybe I'm being too literal-minded about this. I would say the idea of a "shitty first draft" is, indeed, a stupid motivational trick, but it is not my stupid motivational trick. For the same reason, I hate the idea of a "rough draft.".


matt said...

What I like about the "shitty first drafts" idea is that it accounts for fundamentally different learning styles. for instance, I'm a hands-down visual learner. I work with friends who do all their thinking in their heads, and write really good first drafts.

For me, that process is paralyzing. I have to see what I'm doing in order to figure out what I think. I need to draw, map, outline, draft, revise IN ORDER TO know what my own ideas are.

Surely, this process will become more sophisticated as I grow as an intellectual. And I can happily say that my first drafts are much better now than they were even just a year ago, but can't see myself ever NOT writing a shitty first draft.

brownstudy said...

Lamott is also addressing fiction writers and, I'd say, people who have no experience writing anything very much, and so it is liberating to be given the permission to be imperfect. (Inexperienced writers also tend to think they need to write a story in the same order as which it is read, and that does not have to be the case at all.) Writing a SFD can also get one around writers block, when the internal editor is interfering with the flow of raw text (or sewage, as the case may be).

I also think that the definition of 'shitty' can be relative. I would imagine a writer of 20 years' experience would write a SFD that would make a neophyte writer weep with jealously, whereas the neophyte's SFD would appear as cave paintings to the experienced writer. I think the floor of one's quality naturally rises as you practice and think about what you do, and so, for example, my SFDs (which tend toward fiction or day-job writing) tend to be structurally more sound or have well-defined chunks that can be worked with later. Whereas 20 years ago, I'd have to write 10 pages to find a paragraph of good material, or so it seemed at the time.

Jonathan said...

Good points, brownstudy. Thanks for stopping by to comment. Where your own internal standard is located will vary quite a bit from writer to writer.

Andrew Shields said...

Well, there are some pretty spectacular cave paintings out there ... :-)

Anonymous said...

I think I fall somewhere between you and Matt...I form a lot in my head, but I have to get it OUT of my head in order to really see what it says.

I also use about twice as many words as I need to, pretty much on a regular basis. I get the ideas out in the SFD, and then I look and go, "Okay, I see what I was saying there, but DAMN that sounds like crap." And then I can clean it all up, and take out all the unnecessary words.

I also have a tendency, after writing a section or a chapter or whatever, to go back and revise it rather than getting on with the writing itself. The SFD gives me permission to leave the SFC (shitty first chapter) behind and keep going.

I live for the SFD. That particular Lamott jewel has been invaluable to me.


Anonymous said...

Hm, then I must not be that visual. But instead of a "bad first draft", I'll map out the (tentative) ideas and some phrases, quotations, etc., but not actually write full sentences in it. Thus armed, I'll write a draft. The idea of a bad first draft seems like a waste of time: if you're going to write too superficially and fast to explore anything, then that means you already know what you're going to say so you might as well work on the wording. If you aren't sure where it's going, you have to think as you write, or writing is a meditation, so *I* at least, have to write like I mean it.