Writing First Drafts

There are two ways of making things. One is where the outcome defines the process, and 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, an important email, making music, creating a product, and everything in between. A “first draft” is the first version of something — it’s about getting started. 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 shitty first drafts comes from Hemingway. It was later made popular by Anne Lammott in her essay, Shitty First Drafts, from her book, 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. That said, you can write, then edit (or revise), write, then edit, and so on, which works fine and is consistent with the way our mind works.

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.

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.

We don’t always know what to write (or create), but that shouldn’t prevent us from doing those things. In fact, we have it backwards. More often than not, we need to write (or create things) to figure out what we want to make. We need to create something tangible that we can evaluate later. Otherwise, it’s just hooey.

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

So how do you go about writing your “first draft”? Write first and edit later. This is the overarching principle that guides our process — 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. It gives 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. Lower your expectations. Focus on the quantity, not the quality of ideas. 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. Focus on showing up and doing the work. Let that process inform the outcome of your work.

There are a few ways to get started with your creative process. Like I mentioned at the start, if you have a basic idea, you can work your way from there. It also depends on how you feel, what comes to you organically, and a 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 ideas that I have on my mind before I can figure out what to do with them. Occassionally, I’ll end up writing 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 says 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. On the contrary — it’s more haphazard than that for me. This is how I write sometimes — you have to write a paragraph or section and then revise it. You have to keep going back and forth between ideating and editing (revising). The important thing is to 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. The whole process is quite cyclical and non-linear (like any creative endeavor).

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, I rarely write down the introduction of a draft first. It often 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.

There are times when you have to simply walk away from the draft because you feel stuck and unable to think of new ideas. So, the best thing to do at this point is to step away from your desk, take a walk somewhere, or come back to it after a few days with fresh energy. Changing your environment can help you with renewed focus (which might be what you need to get over that hump and get unstuck). Other times, you might not know enough about something (before you can write about it), which is when you have to do research and learn about what others are thinking before you can form your opinions and synthesize.

Here’s how you know when you’re done creating the art you set out to make: when you’re done writing or making that art, have you said everything (or created) what you wanted to say (in your “draft”), and have you said it (or done it) in the best possible way? This is how you make art by way of writing a first draft, telling a story, creating a product, or what have you. Believe it or not, this goes back to improving your personal effectiveness and performance (and in that order).

Writing “first drafts” isn’t about first drafts. More than anything, it’s about getting started. It’s about giving yourself permission to be “crappy”, so you give yourself a chance of making something great. That can only happen when you start and build on something while leaving the evaluation for later.

There is no such thing as an “elegant first draft”. You have to be comfortable with writing that crappy first draft. Otherwise, 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) because I could theoretically be writing forever and never quite be done with it. I can’t do that because we need to ship — that’s the only way we’ll ever make progress.

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