Anne Lamott: shitty first drafts

Anne Lamott has a fantastic short essay about lowering the bar by setting out to write shitty first drafts.

You write shitty first drafts because you couldn’t possibly write a good first draft.

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.
The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

In the first draft you write whatever crazy stuff comes into your head.

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. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him.

Some of that crazy stuff won’t be so crazy.

Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

But even if you know that your job is to write a shitty first draft, it’s still hard to get yourself to do it.

I’d sit down at my desk with my notes and try to write the review. Even after I’d been doing this for years, panic would set in. I’d try to write a lead, but instead I’d write a couple of dreadful sentences, XX them out, try again, XX everything out, and then feel despair and worry settle on my chest like an x-ray apron. It’s over, I’d think calmly. I’m not going to be able to get the magic to work this time. I’m ruined.

But you remind yourself: no one is going to see it. All you have to do is write something shitty. And gosh darn it, you are good enough to write something shitty.

So I’d start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible. I’d write a lead paragraph that was a whole page, even though the entire review could only be three pages long, and then I’d start writing up descriptions of the food, one dish at a time, bird by bird, and the critics would be sitting on my shoulders, commenting like cartoon characters. They’d be pretending to snore, or rolling their eyes at my overwrought descriptions

Stick with it and finish the shitty first draft, despite the internal critics that are telling you (probably accurately) that it’s shit.

The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft.

Whatever! You did it! Congratulate yourself.

And then come back to it later.

The next day, I’d sit down, go through it all with a colored pen, take out everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere on the second page, figure out a kicky place to end it, and then write a second draft. It always turned out fine, sometimes even funny and weird and helpful. I’d go over it one more time and mail it in.

And then the cycle will repeat again next time. But that’s okay. That’s the process.

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


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