Write a Terrible First Draft

I’ve recently been working through a portion of my story backlog, poring through transcripts, fine-tuning word choice, and—of course—writing first drafts.

My first drafts are always bad. They reek of grammar errors, embrace clichés, and lack structure. In fact, I purposely write my first drafts as poorly as possible; I don’t correct anything and leave behind all english conventions. Hidden in these first drafts, though, are gems.

How can you purposely write something atrocious and still find redeeming qualities. Actually, how can you even waste time by writing something bad in the first place?

I used to agree. Writing bad drafts would seem like the worst use of time and a good interview. But according to Ann Lamott, “Shitty First Drafts” indeed have their use.

“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.”

Lamott refutes the notion that all writers touch their keyboards and produce literary gold. Most writers sit down and—like you or I—have creative ruts, feel stuck, or freeze in fear that their first paragraph is going to turn out bad.

And the best way to overcome this perfectionist syndrome is to just “get it out.” Write something bad to shock your system into actually writing in the first place.

Although Lamott embraces the idea of just getting it out onto the paper, I see another advantage to writing bad first drafts. They often use a different part of our brain that we can’t access when writing normally.

When I write bad—no, truly terrible—first drafts, I’m talking to the computer in front of me. It’s a conversation between the creative recesses of my mind and a blank white screen. Forget grammar rules and established wisdom, I want to let loose everything inside me onto this paper without regards for what is right or wrong.

Most of these extended rambles get cut, but often, in the heat of the moment, when I wasn’t considering the synonyms to “get” or scanning for incorrect usage of apostrophes, I produced something that was truly gold.

A bold idea.

A strange flashback scene that just works.

A set of details that perfectionist me might’ve cut.

That unbridled intensity that comes with bad-grammar speed-writing entices me. It draws me in, and it keeps me writing.

So the next time you sit down to write a story or an article or your next novel, remember, don’t be afraid to write a truly terrible first draft.