Shitty first drafts: my favorite writing advice

The best place to start this new project is with the very best writing advice I have encountered: shitty first drafts.

That phrase comes from Anne Lamott in her brilliant book Bird by Bird.

I didn’t know the book when I was teaching a class called “Writers Read,” which has a perfect title: we read to become better writers. I curated reading for the first third of the semester. Then, each class member chose a piece and led discussion. At the end of the semester, everyone wrote a new piece using some of what they’d read as model texts, and we workshopped those.

Besides reading essays, poems, short stories, comics, and other pieces collected in an anthology, I also asked the class to read a book about reading and writing. One semester I chose Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, which seemed perfect for our class, but didn’t really delight us. There wasn’t active dislike for it, but no one seemed to love it, either.

Late in the semester, after class one day, a student asked me if I’d read Bird By Bird, suggesting it may be a better fit. I had not, so I bought Bird By Bird.

A book cover with an image of a flying bird holding a feather, and the words 25TH Anniversary Edition, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott, 
New York Times Bestseller Author of Almost Everything

I immediately fell in love with Anne Lamott’s prose and practicality. Her thoughts about writing were unpretentious and her tips useful in the way I always hoped to convey to my students. Of course, her craft and specificity combined to bring those ideas to life in a way that I had not yet achieved.

Even though the book was written in 1994, before most of my students were born, they fell in love with it, too—short chapter after short chapter, semester after semester, year after year. It was a hit

I think that’s because of Anne Lamott’s honesty and vulnerability. Here’s an accomplished author, whose book we’re holding in our hands, precisely identifying the very things that make writing a challenge.

The chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts” is the third in the first section. Lamott begins by sharing a story of what we imagine successful authors’ process to be like, and then tell us:

“…this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”

This is the fantasy of good writing: It can seem so light and effortless there on the page, that we see none of the work that it takes to get there.

For me, a lot of the agony in that work is self-inflicted: I try to write perfect prose.

As Lamott tells us:

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

The way through this, she suggests, is to write with abandon:

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it.

I share this advice whenever I can. It’s brilliant.

Despite knowing this advice, I constantly remind myself of it, because the fantasy that perfect writing will just flow from my fingers to my keyboard keeps showing up.

The way I describe this advice to myself and to writers I work with is that we should just give ourselves permission to write absolute shit. (I’d sometimes assign students a shitty first draft, demanding that they make it extra shitty.)

This works whether you’re writing an essay, a chapter in a book, a short story, or an Instagram caption.

Here’s the secret: What you write will not be shit! It may not be perfect—not that anything ever is—but it will be far better than your expectation.

The best part, though, is that you will actually have some writing to work with. It will be right there on the screen, waiting for you to revise and tweak and fiddle with. That, my friends, is so much more fun than looking at a blinking cursor.

2 thoughts on “Shitty first drafts: my favorite writing advice”

  1. Love this advice! I’ve had some ideas for a book or two stewing in my brain for ages, but I can never bring myself to just sit down and write. I need to let go of waiting for the perfect first draft and just WRITE. Thanks!


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