On Writing Crap (aka the First Draft)

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I want to open a dialogue about an idea that is both taboo and yet, spoken about over and over again in the writing community. It’s something every writer deals with. It’s something every writer fears and every reader loathes. 

Writing crap.

Everyone does it. The most prolific of writers write crap. The most famous writers write crap.

That’s what the first draft is for.

While in college, a writer came to speak to us and talked about how he’d attended a writing workshop in an effort to get better at the “first draft process”. He sat in one of the sessions and the writer (one who makes a cushiony living off his novels) said the following:

At 7 AM, I go down to my basement office, and I proceed to write the crappiest thing I’ve ever written. But I don’t stop. I keep going. Even though my head wants to delete every last crappy word, and my brain wants to edit all the crappy sentences, I keep going. I don’t stop. And I do this for a few hours.

And then I go have lunch.

And then after lunch, I go back to that piece of crap that I’d written in the morning, and I work on making it a little less crappy.

The point I’m making is that first drafts are, as a general rule, crappy. And for that I am grateful. Writing is really about editing.

So my question is, why do so many of us writers allow that crappy first draft to hold us back? So many of us struggle with the blank page. We struggle with the poor word choice and less-than-stellar sentence structure. But if this is the predicament for most (if not all) writers, then why do we do this to ourselves knowing the struggle isn’t just our own?

I know my answer. Mine is fear.

Fear tells me that everything I write is going to be crappy no matter how much editing.

Fear tells me no one will want to read what I write no matter where it’s published.

Fear tells me I’m not a writer– I’m just posing as one.

Fear is wrong.

And even though I know that, I still let fear hold me back. Luckily, I’m allowing this less and less.

“All writing problems are psychological problems. Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line. That’s why privacy is so important. You should write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone.”

~Erica Jong

So what can you do to get that crappy first draft written? Every writer is different and so the answer will differ for each of you as well. Here’s what’s worked for me:

Set a routine

I’ve found that routine slowly suffocates my fear. Routine gives me a road map, a guideline to follow so even when the fear crops up, my road map keeps me on track. I’m lucky enough to have developed a few habits to get to writing.

Refrain from self-editing

That first go-round, just write all the way through. Just put something on that blank page. And once you do, don’t stop. Don’t self-edit. Don’t fret over that horribly worded sentence. Don’t worry about the punctuation. Just keep going.

Put it away, but schedule a time to look at it again

Write until you’re done, and then put the thing away. Don’t go to edit immediately. The ideas, the words—they’re too fresh. Give yourself some time away from the project before you edit. But make sure you schedule into your routine a time to go back to the work. Otherwise, you might end up leaving it in that dusty drawer.

These simple three steps have made a world of difference for me. What’s worked for you?

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