Sh*tty First Drafts

In procrastination, writing on September 17, 2008 at 4:08 am


Often, I’ll talk with students who try to write a paper in one fell swoop. These students will sit down, set on writing the paper then and there. They’ll get the computer booted, open Word, and type a title. Then, the first sentence. About halfway through the first sentence, fear sets in. They’re writing about the presidential election, perhaps. “The two candidates in this year’s election…” But is that a good way to start? Maybe he should mention the names right off the bat, maybe throw out some bigger words. He deletes and tries again. “Senator John McCain and Barack Obama…” Is that how you spell Obama’s first name, though? That can’t be right. And he should say which states the senators are senator-ing, right? So he goes to google to look up the information, and he gets a little lost online, reading comparisons of the candidates’ health care proposals and watching youtube videos of a few speeches. When he gets back to his Word document, he reads that first sentence again, but he’s decided that he really wants to focus on health care and how each candidate feels about it. So he starts again: “Health care is a serious thing…” But who uses the word “thing”? That doesn’t sound nearly official enough, so he deletes again… And on and on the process goes, forward and back and forward and back. Painful, isn’t it? …

There’s a much better way! It involves using the writing process to write the paper in stages instead of all at once. Here are the stages of writing that I use in the process of writing:

1) Brainstorming (coming up with ideas)
2) Shitty First Draft
(or SFD, explained below)

—--line of procrastination. Here’s where you should procrastinate at least a little — take a break!——-

3) Revision (expanding your ideas, moving paragraphs around, clarifying ideas)
4) Proofread
(grammar and punctuation)

What the student above skipped was the first half of the writing process. He didn’t write a shitty first draft. Instead, he was trying to write his final draft first. This is the hard way! Using the process makes things so much easier.

The “shitty first draft” is the first draft you write, which should be messy, can be full of errors, and might not even make sense. Anne Lamott coined this term in her amazing (and classic) book on writing, Bird by Bird. The “shitty first draft” is all about letting your thoughts sprout onto the page, without worrying about all the stuff your English teacher tells you about grammar and essay structure (that’s stuff to consider later). Instead, you can focus on figuring out what you want to say, without worrying about how you’re going to say it. Getting this draft out quickly, without editing or looking up words or worrying about how the writing sounds, makes it so much easier to go back to your writing later and really focus on revision.

Merlin Mann, the guru who created the 43 Folders blog, wrote a great post on procrastination, SFDs, and the writing process: “Turning Procrastination into your Shitty First Draft


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