Your first draft is shit

Brawler, author, and noted pisspot Ernest Hemingway didn’t need to say much about how to write.

Although he’s one of the 20th century’s more prolific writers, he didn’t need to write a curriculum or self-published book to teach people what he knew. He didn’t even need to write a blog post. All he said was this:

“The first draft of anything is shit”

Hemingway’s descriptive, pithy style had a massive impact on writing that’s still felt today, from novels to advertising. There’s even a Hemingway App if you really want to make those sentences bark!

Hemingway and Cat

When a man loves cats as much as Hems, it’s easy to forget his many indiscretions! Image from http://www.jfklibrary.org

I often work with people on their own writing – either helping craft their words, doing 1-1 workshops, editing whole books, or pulling together 20 pages of written materials into something that’s totally new and extremely short. One of the hardest things is working with the notion that the ‘first draft is perfect’.

But I spent days on it! I poured my heart into it!
You sure did. That first draft is for your enthusiasm, your embryonic ideas, your philosophy, and your bad jokes. Everyone should do it. It’s a wonderful thing to get out of your head and down on paper; watching those words cascade like a 1920s ticker-tape parade. To get that first draft out of your body you say phooey to syntax, grammar and punctuation, as well as common sense and logic. You can also lose your theme halfway through, and sometimes the entire point.

While most people feel they have a good book in them, I find that most have either forgotten about, or never knew about drafting in the first place (I mean crafting your own words yourself, not writing-by-committee, a subject for another day). A lot of people are very good at pumping out work emails, reports, and PowerPoint slides. This doesn’t necessarily make them a ‘good writer’. If you don’t write every single day as I do, it’s hard to guess what the technical writing and editing process is, outside of memories of your last Year 12 assignment.

Your First Draft is Shit

This is me after reading one of my horrible first drafts. Image from http://www.alternativereel.com

Soooo you’re writing from your ivory tower, yes?
I long for that tower, but no. No professional writer in the world enjoys the words just tumbling out in the right order and length as they gaze on in wonder. Nope, my first drafts are as shit as yours, if not shitter.

The difference is that I write more than one draft. To say what I need to say – and get my point across quickly and concisely – requires some drafting. And a bit of time, if I have it, to let my ideas settle.

Writing a first draft of a blog post, for example, could take me an hour on a good day or several hours over several weeks. After that, I do another draft. I’m well aware that clichés can ruin an otherwise sprightly and original piece of work, yet my first drafts are stacked full of ‘em. Dangling modifiers? Yup. M-dashes and semi-colons interrupting everything? Yeesh. Commas scattered hither and thither? My first drafts are just collections of eyebrows on a page.

When I need further research or can’t remember a word or phrase, I just fill my first draft with XXX’s and keep typing and cackling. Often I end up just arguing with myself. Sometimes I look at a first draft I’ve left in the figurative ‘bottom drawer’ and have absolutely no idea what I was on about. That’s what my threadbare delete button is for.

I love writing, and I love the idea that with a bit of encouragement, anyone can get enjoyment from the process. To hear that writing was ‘torturous’ or that they ‘hated it’ gives me pain. I tend to think that most people have good drafts in them. If they pushed through the first one.

So laminate it and put it on your wall. Print it on your business stationery. Tattoo it on your wrist and never forget:

Your first draft is always shit.

TOTAL SHIT.

But your next one will be better. Now scoot.

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