NON FICTION: Write A Shitty First Draft. I Dare You.

Brown typewriter on tabletop

Photo: Pereanu Sebastian

Ah, the infamous shitty first draft. The place where hopes are simultaneously born and slaughtered. The one thing that writers fear the most.

The first draft can be anything. I can write poop all over again if I want. Poop poop poop. I can, like, use punctuation however I like—I can even make sentences no meaning at all fire escape what yes.

Perhaps I’ll rewrite that later. Perhaps not.

But that’s the point. That’s what the first draft is. The canvas where you start creating your art. You probably thought that the blank page was the canvas. Well you thought wrong.

What writer’s block?

I get a lot of questions from budding writers asking me how to get over writer’s block, and my answer is always the same. Write shitty pieces.

Why? Because you have no business trying to write good stuff before you’ve written the bad, and because you’ll learn how decent some of your ‘bad’ stuff actually is. Then you’ll learn who the real enemy is.

It’s not bad writing. It’s not writing.

Of course you want to write well. And how could you start without wanting your piece to be worthy of the internet’s admiration? I totally get that. But forget that shit. Go write something bad.

And here’s an important note to go along with it. What you think is bad is only your opinion. There may be a million people wanting to read your stories, and you’re depriving them of that chance just because of your sole opinion.

Coffee mug that says 'Begin'.

All you’ll ever need for motivation. Photo: Danielle Macinnes

Go write. Go write. Go write.

So go write that shitty draft. Let go of your disdain for Dan Brown and E. L. James. How dare they top the bestselling lists with their drivel? You could do better, right? Don’t.

Start writing crap. Crap is how you find your true voice. When you’re free to say anything you want, your inner wordsmith comes to the fore and you write what’s truly you.

On that note, stop comparing yourself to others. You need to get rid of the notion that you’ll be coming up with the next Great Gatsby1984, or even Twilight. Write what you want, but don’t your grand idea on a pedestal, because that’s how you drain it of its soul.

Your biggest problem isn’t your lack of an MFA, or that the vampire genre is trending in 2020 (I have no idea what’s trending don’t quote me). It’s that you haven’t completed your first manuscript. You choosing not to write is the sole reason why you’re not the great writer you should be.

Why fear writing?

Maybe it’s fear. Maybe you think you have nothing to say. Maybe you think your writing sucks (get in line).

I have a theory why the last one could be a thing though. It’s the same reason why you hate hearing your own voice. You go about life having this unreal expectation of how you sound like, only to realise that you were a nasal duckling all along.

But get this, we don’t necessarily dislike our own voice. We only start judging it once we realise it’s our voice.

It’s the same with writing. You could hop on the critic train and laugh at Dan Brown all you want, but you know that the person you save your worst criticisms for is yourself.

Man kicking woman off a cliff

Exactly what you’d do to yourself if there was another you. Photo: Ashley Jurius

You’ll always think you suck

And that’s probably the reason why you find it so hard to write that first draft. Why you never get past the first word, the first line, the first chapter. You can’t imagine carrying on writing the next sentence when the one before it was pure crap.

But you have to push on, because every story has a beginning, middle, and end. You have to keep writing so that you can discover where these checkpoints are. Then you can come back and rewrite the entire damn thing all over again.

And again.

And again.

If you’re going to stop every time you’re unsure where you’re headed, then you’re just going to become great at writing introductions. And the only way to learn the craft is by completing what you’d set out to say.

You think I started this piece with any idea beyond ‘I could write poop’? As the author-screenwriter Chuck Wendig would put it: “Finish your shit.”

But Stu, you might say, I can’t imagine moving on to the next sentence unless the current one is exactly the way I like it!

Who are you writing for, the Queen of England? Why are you so concerned about being perfect when you’re not even putting out anything at all? Let’s go through this again. Who’s the enemy? Is it bad writing or not writing? I’m going to trust that you answered that one correctly.

Woman in sunglasses smiling

Your true happiness as a writer is waiting on that next blank page. Photo: Seth Doyle

Seriously. Go write.

Go ahead and get started on your pile of crap. Choose the stupidest words if it helps. Make it fatuous. Or why not imbecilic? Take a trip through the thesaurus to realise that you don’t need fancy words to create a shitty first draft. Then sit down and write some more.

Instead of trying to write the next National Geographic feature, aim to write as if you’re going to email a colleague.

You might still find this challenging, even after doing away with all the expectations. And this is where you learn to stop making fun of authors such as Dan Brown or E. L. James. Because at least they did the work.

I remember a snippet of David Goggins on the stupidest questions he’s ever received. Let me paraphrase a little:

“I work out every day, and people always ask me about my rest days and recovery plans. I say ‘Work out first, motherfucker. Then talk to me about rest.’ These people are already thinking about off days before they even start. By the way, Stuart’s a pretty cool guy.”

Look, think of it this way. Every word you write is practice. It doesn’t matter if you delete the piece out of self-loathing or if it remains in your Drafts folder for all eternity. If you’re a writer who doesn’t write, then that makes you an ‘r’. And we all know how all those people ‘r’. Heh heh.

But seriously though, get to writing, because every great story was once a shitty first draft too. Yours included.

12 thoughts on “NON FICTION: Write A Shitty First Draft. I Dare You.

  1. Started my shitty/ scrappy first draft on 26th june 10pm. I can see myself feeling horrible throughout this process. I decided I am just going to write crap, to get it written, ideas formed, and to put into action the dream. And it is going a scattered first draft, in a bound note book. I have created sections, topics, situations, . Some sections of notebook are titled, quotes, book references, and Hope’s, worries and fears. Hope’s, worries and fears to just keep it as memory of all the emotions I feel towards my first ever book and draft. Then I have a grading ‘crappy first draft begins’. Lol.
    I already feel stuck. But in last night’s meditation the thought came to me, write up your research as subject headings like I did years a go at uni , then piece it together.

    I have an idea but I felt so blank at times. Do I decided to read more, and research, and that be part of my random first draft.

    This post of yours really helped me . Thank you.

    It is a really hard process.

    • You know what helps me when I feel stuck? I make it a point to write as crappy as I can—so crappy that I’d annoy whoever is reading it.

      That helps me get over the hump, and I realise later on that what I thought would be crappy would actually come out pretty decent.

      • Thank you for this helpful tip. I decided not to care and just write. I might even call it a zero draft or discovery draft. It will be a hot mess of ideas, that will lead to something great.😊

  2. Hey, I have been doing some general search for good blogs and here I stumbled across yours.
    Thank you for writing this.
    As someone who has been writing for over 5 years now, I can still extremely be self-critical of my work and give up too soon before getting up to work again. Thank you for writing this, much needed!

  3. This is the best lesson you can learn about writing. You can’t edit and polish a blank page. You’ve got to have something to work with. Once your initial thoughts are down, the writing gets easier and easier.

  4. Pingback: A Synchronous Story From My Tuscan Desk | Tales from the trail

  5. Yes! I’ve enjoyed writing workshops with Peter Murphy in the past. Those workshops will feature a ridiculous prompt and then give you a ridiculously short time period to produce, in his words, “a shitty first draft”. I find this quite effective.

    • I think short time is a tool that really helps with overcoming perfection. I’ve been experimenting with it lately and have found great success in spurring the writing muscles. Of course, most of what comes out is crap, but there may be some gems there once in a while.

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