Shitty First Drafts

Our work often starts with getting the person across the table to just lay their ideas out. You’ll recognize this roadblock: the moment when you think you know roughly what you’ll want to do to help, but they can’t quite see why or how to move forward yet. It hurts. And that’s the resistance this post is about meeting and relieving.

Usually, the resistance comes from not knowing where to start. They can’t tell which idea is the good idea hanging out in the spaghetti knot of thoughts and so they freeze. One tactic that works over and over again, is to encourage them to just put everything on the table. We need a purge. The good ideas and the bad. The smart and the dumb. We can tell them we actually want it all because then we can help them sort out what matters from what doesn’t.

Anne Lamott has a tool for this in the creative writing world. It’s what she does when she doesn’t know where to start. In order to get to good writing, we have to start by writing. Even if it’s bad. She calls it writing a “shitty first draft” (or SFD for short, h/t to Brené Brown for the shortcut suggestion). Here’s how she explains it:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

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. 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.

Since we know what our finished product can look like but our client does not, we can encourage producing an SFD together. Without a commitment and without any expectation, our first job is to just make them comfortable enough to open the junk drawer and show us the mess.

They don’t have to organize anything yet. The SFD is all about starting. Revisions will come later. We’re the editors and we’re here to help. It’s not about doing well, its about the act of doing. And once we’ve done it, we’ll likely find a few gems hidden in the heap too.

Professionally, we can use SFDs to get conversations out of neutral and onto the road. Every marathon starts with a step. Sometimes we need a safe space and some encouragement to take it, and once we start, we realize we are on our way.

Here’s a link to Lamott’s explanation, also found in her creative writing classic, “Bird by Bird.”

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