Writing First Drafts

There are two ways of making things. One is where the outcome defines the process. The other is where the process defines the outcome. When it comes to writing drafts, there really is no right answer here. It’s whatever works for you. For me, it really depends on what I am writing and how much I know about it. For instance, sometimes, I’ll know the outline and I’ll know exactly what to write and be done with it in a single writing session, but that is more of an anomaly rather than typical. Most of the time, it takes me a few hours (over a couple of days) to research and write a first draft, if not longer.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify what I mean by “writing” and “first drafts”. In essence, writing drafts is not limited to writing, but any creative endeavor. You could replace the word, “writing” with any creative endeavor (or value creation), and everything that I write would be equally true for it. It could be writing a business memo, making music, an important email, creating a product, and everything in between. A “first draft” is the first version of something. It’s about getting started and creating something. I’ll talk about “first drafts” from the standpoint of writing, since that is my creative endeavor, but it applies to just about anything when it comes to making art. By the way, this concept applies equally to work done individually or in teams. In both cases, you’re following a creative process.

The idea of writing first drafts comes from Anne Lammott’s Shitty First Drafts, though it applies to any creative endeavor that adds value in the world by way of your art.

The whole purpose of making art is to make change. The way to get started making the art is to create the first draft. It could be a piece of writing, a prototype of a product, or what have you. This applies equally if you’re working by yourself or in a team.

We are naturally inclined to make our “drafts” perfect at the outset, but that is not how our brains work. You can’t make things (art) and edit at the same time. It just doesn’t work. This is also akin to doing knowledge work — we have to think about our work and then do the work, but we can’t do both at the same time. It creates conflict.

We need to create “first drafts” of things because that is the only way to get started. When we are starting out with making something, it doesn’t help to evaluate our ideas. Instead, we need to focus on our ideas and build on them. There will always be time for evaluation later.

You need to write (or create things) to figure out what you think. You need to create something tangible that you can evaluate later. Otherwise, it’s just hooey.

The thing is that we can’t get to second and third drafts if we don’t start with the first one. The process of getting started leads us to those future drafts.

Believe it or not, the hard part isn’t always writing (or creating), but actually sitting down to do the work.

So how do you go about writing your “first draft”? This is the overarching principle — we need to give ourselves the permission to “fail” (by writing crappy “first drafts”), and unless we do, we won’t come up with anything original. By the way, this is why we have R&D labs in organizations. They give them a way to fail in private so they can ship something great in public later.

Stop trying to be perfect and just get started. No one is going to see your first draft, except maybe your editor, but that is a safe space. If you don’t have an editor, you can create a safe, divergent space for yourself in which you give yourself the permission to write what you want to write, safe in the knowledge that you’ll never come up with anything great unless you do so.

There are a few ways to get started. Like I mentioned at the start, if you have a basic outline, you can work your way from there. It also depends on how you feel, what comes to you organically, and some mix of both. It also depends on how much you know about the thing you’re writing (creating).

Most of the time, I have a very basic outline to start with. I intentionally keep it broad and try not to write a detailed outline since I don’t want to limit myself and filter my ideas too much at that point, while giving myself as much freedom to write. In other words, I choose to be divergent as far as structure goes. The outline, more than anything, serves as a map or a guideline. I am free to write.

Other times, it helps me to simply write down the key ideas in the form of paragraphs and make sense of them later by having to figure out how to organize them. That will later help me define and/or optimize the outline. There is no right answer here. It also depends on how you feel about it and how it comes to you. It’s quite organic in that way.

I like what Anne Lamott’s friend has to say about writing first drafts in Anne’s book (emphasis mine):

A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

I don’t follow this process to the T. On the contrary — it’s more haphazard than that for me. That said, I make sure that at any given point I am aware that I’m either diverging or converging, be it a paragraph, a section, or the entire draft.

Every day, I sit down to write for a few minutes in the morning. I tend to write from a ready stream of consciousness without judging anything. I want to write as I think. I have to do it quickly because the mind is quick to evaluate it. I write to find out what has my attention without filtering anything. Even though I am describing my practice of writing Morning Pages here, the process of writing an actual draft is not that different.

For instance, rarely do I write down the introduction of a draft first. Often it comes later or as the last thing in the process. Writing down the body of the essay helps me write the introduction better than if I started with it first. It also helps me write a better and detailed outline through the process.

Even as I am writing this draft, I have a basic outline written — even then I am writing freehand to get all my ideas out on the topic without filtering (and losing) anything. I can always go back and make sense of what I’ve written later. But, for now, I am focused on creating the thing rather than evaluating it. That’s an important distinction to make. This is based on the principle of divergence and convergence, and its descendant, Explore, Evaluate, Execute. This is not to say that you only write once and edit once later and then you’re done. It doesn’t work that way or that simply. Of course, the whole writing process is quite cyclical and non-linear. The key question you need to be asking at any point is if you’re diverging or converging.

There is no such thing as an “elegant first draft”. You have to get comfortable with writing that crappy first draft. Unless you do, you won’t get far. Stop trying and waiting for your work to be perfect. Instead, focus on doing the work and shipping it. One of the things I often say is I never finish writing my drafts, I only abandon them (at some point). This mentality is necessary because we need to ship. That’s the only way we’ll ever make progress in life.

In the spirit of the topic, this is also a first draft, which will be edited later.

Sign up to get my best advice on improving your personal effectiveness via my weekly Newsflash: