It’s time for you to write a blog, email, ebook, whitepaper, etc. How’s that process usually play out for you? Anything like this?
When you sit down to write you have no energy or excitement. You lack all confidence in your self, yet you try anyway. As you write, you have no idea what you're doing, and you feel less and less thrilled with each sentence you construct. You trudge along, stepping deeper in worry and despair.
And all along, the voices in your head turn up the volume...some you recognize from past writing experiences and other ones you meet for the first time...but all are exceptionally proficient at letting you know just how much skill you lack. In the end, you hobble away in defeat, certain that's the last time you ever do that.
If that sounds like you, then congratulations. You’re a writer! And you’re in good company. You’re part of an equally bothered club that includes New York Times bestselling author Anne Lamott.
She talks about her personal writing trials in her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, recounting with sheer transparency her experiences as a food critic at California magazine in which she repeatedly cycled through those same doubts, fears, and feelings of worthlessness. And how, along that depressing journey, she discovered the importance of what she calls, “Shitty First Drafts.”
Anne compares SFDs to the way a child creates. Here’s how she puts it:
"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."
As the father of a two-year-old, that comparison could not be more relatable. My son has no hesitations. He draws, he pretends, he mimics…without inhibitions, critiques, or visions of grandeur. He simply creates.
And the same holds true for us. When we return to this same playful demeanor, only then can we create wonderfully shitty first drafts.
It does seem a bit counterintuitive to intentionally create a crappy product, until you realize that all great writing grew out of mediocrity. None of it came out glowing and giggling. It all first wailed and whined, kicking about in contorted states of discomfort.
And so we must stop expecting immediate perfection. All brilliance takes time and tenacity to shine. The sooner we come to expect failures in our writing, the sooner our shitty first drafts can become, as Anne says, “good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”
But more than just expecting bad writing, we must learn to accept bad writing. Embrace it. Know that every time we stroke a key or push pen to paper—making superb or shitty work—we’re stepping firmly on the neck of all our fears about writing. And we’re expressing faith in ourselves, our tools, and our process.
This is why we need SFDs. This is why we must begin to embrace every mangled sentence and half-constructed idea we first create.
The sooner we trip on failure, the sooner we can start walking the path to brilliance.
Move your fingers. Just start typing or handwriting without first building any self-imposed impediments. No stopping to correct or massage the copy. No pausing to address the voices screaming in your head. No checking word counts. No slowing down to conjure up an amazing opening or closing.
I love how Lamott describes this process:
"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."
So go on and write the most boring, lousy, pretentious crap that drops in your mind. And then, when you’ve released it all, get up and walk away.
The gems that you’ll keep and polish later will be hiding somewhere underneath it all.