The Best Writing Hack: The Shitty First Draft

I was a 5th year Ph.D. student when I learned about the “shitty first draft”.

One of the 6th year grad students was just about to defend, and gave a short presentation to the rest of the students in our program about her tips on writing. She was a writing guide for graduate students on campus, as my university had a writing center to help students navigate various writing projects.

When she first uttered it, I couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded like a joke. How could a “shitty first draft” help you write faster and more efficiently?

This wasn’t something she made up. This was a very well-known, well-accepted concept and technique for how to write. The term was coined by Anne Lamott in her book, Bird by Bird (1994). There’s an incredible excerpt from this book that I go back to every once in a while, and it really helps me get a healthy perspective and remember that this concept really works.

Basically, Lamott says, “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.” This was the secret to writing, and once it fully clicked for me, it was how I wrote my dissertation and manuscripts. It’s definitely how I write blog posts. I’m channeling that energy right now, as I type this.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up.

Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird” (1994)

So, how do you go about this?

Oftentimes, I see posts on social media and hear complaints from colleagues about how difficult it is to start writing. They say it feels like they are taking one step forward, but are then taking two steps back. Or, they are so overwhelmed with everything they think they need to write, that they can’t pick a place to start. Or, the things they write sound so terrible, it feels like a waste of time.

Lamott says, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up.

Over my last year of grad school, I quickly shed any shame I felt when I wrote first drafts. I dumped out my thoughts with run-on sentences, terrible grammar, and the most boring vocabulary choices. The shitty first draft isn’t meant to be seen by anyone. It’s purely to get your ideas, points, and thoughts out there onto the paper. Lamott says, “every time the answer would come: all I had to do was to write a really shitty first draft of, say, the opening paragraph. And no one was going to see it.

Just that act of shamelessly writing, knowing what you want to get out there and using whatever words come to mind, no matter how unrefined, is the biggest and most important step to having something to actually work with down the line. By getting it all out onto the paper, not only do you have something significant to work with, you are actually familiarizing yourself with the scope, points, and details of the overall writing endeavor.

Once the shitty first draft is done, you can return to it to make careful grammatical edits, rearrange concepts, strengthen arguments, add references, change up some words, make paragraphs, and clarify important messages.

Perhaps you do this already. Perhaps, earlier in your life, you realized that dumping everything out onto that Word Document without a care, and then editing, was the way to go. That’s pretty much what this concept is about!

Conclusion

As grad students, postdocs, or early career academics, we may think that the papers we reference, the textbooks we read, or the articles we enjoy skimming are written by writers who are leaps and bounds above us in terms of skill. That’s not the case – they all started out as a pretty terrible first draft, because that’s just how writing works. 

As Lamott says, “Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.” 

If you’re still not convinced, think of all the times you’ve sat there trying to write something for an important project. The ego, the expectations you have of yourself, the shame in writing a really terrible few sentences: they’re all stopping you from moving forward with the project. Just write. Trust me. All the subsequent editing steps are a lot easier and will be much more doable with that shitty first draft to work with.

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