On shitty first drafts

In my quest to improve my writing (both quality and quantity), I’m reading and listening to a lot of stuff about the craft of writing, and one thing that comes up a lot is the mantra that ‘all first drafts are shit’. Most recently, that’s appeared in the book I’m currently reading, Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”, a classic of the writing craft genre, so it does have a pretty impressive pedigree as an assumed truth. I’m sure she’s not the only one – it’s certainly something I’ve seen and heard a lot on writing sites and in interviews with authors.

This emphasis though on the shitty first draft has always not sat quite right with me. I didn’t realise how uncomfortable it made me until I heard the author Alison Belsham interviewed on The Bestseller Experiment podcast (ep.153). Towards the end of the podcast episode, she talks about how much she disagrees with this idea that ‘all first drafts are shit’, and I actually cheered and punched the air, it was so great to hear someone else say it out loud!

I think my issue with it isn’t the intention behind it (which is to say, don’t expect your first draft to be amazing, you’ll still have to do a fair bit of work on it so don’t be discouraged, but also it’s probably best not to submit it just yet), which I know is meant to be supportive and encouraging. Rather, I think it’s the actual language which rubs me up the wrong way, with its implication that nothing about the first draft is worth anything much. When I wrote my PhD thesis, of course it went through several drafts, each one more polished and coherent than the one before, and I certainly didn’t submit the early draft or have any illusions that it was of the required standard. But, having said that, there was quite a bit of it that did find its way into the final draft, in some form or another – there was enough there that wasn’t shit that I could work with and craft into something worth reading.

One of the pieces of writing I’ve been working on over the last few months, on and off, is a set of essays, which may or may not end up submitted or published at some point – they’re all in need of a fair bit of work still, and all are still at the first draft stage. A few of them I really like, despite their rawness, but one of them I honestly don’t think is any good. In fact, it’s a bit shitty. And one thing I’ve realised as I write more is that life (and time) is too short to polish turds. So that one I am just going to abandon. For me, ‘shitty’ means ‘not worth spending the time on’, which is why I wish the ‘all first drafts are shit’ mantra could be reworded to something kinder and more realistic. My other first drafts, which of course are not in a publishable state yet, do (in my humble opinion) show some sparks of promise that I want to nurture into something shinier. Yes, they’re a bit raw and unsophisticated, and yes, they require a lot more work to get up to scratch. But what they’re not, even in this raw state, is shitty.

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