Against the Shitty First Draft

April 22, 2022 § 33 Comments

By Gabriela Denise Frank

Can we strike shitty first draft from our vocabulary?

No wants to do a shitty job at anything. Writing time is precious and we know words matter, yet we erode our efforts with faux-cheerful statements: “I’m writing my shitty first draft this weekend!”

It’s just an expression, you say. It doesn’t mean anything.

Well, honey, self-talk matters.

We seek to move people with the same language we use to label our writing shitty. When this phrase infiltrates our thinking—that shit is part of writing—we denigrate our creative labor and the joy the arises from it.

Attend an artist residency, and you’ll witness the pathology: hands down, the writers will be the most tense. The visual artists will fill their studios with music and invite people in for chats over wine; the writers will be bug-eyed at 1 a.m. under the blue light of a screen, tearing their hair out because everything is shitty, shitty, shitty!

I get it. I’ve been in those workshops. The shitty first draft was a cockeyed badge of courage and a way to diffuse critique. If I call my draft shitty before you do, you can’t hurt me.

While potters work with clay and wheel, painters with pigment and canvas, and photographers with camera and film, writers must conjure our medium and our tools. The first draft is our clay, our canvas, our film, and through revision we add shape, color, and focus. Have you ever heard a sculptor degrade the material she’s chiseling a statue from? Look at this shitty marble! We can’t purchase our first drafts from catalogs or quarries, which makes how we set the foundation of our practice even more important.

When an essay lives in our mind, it’s perfect. When it becomes embodied in letters and words, it’s no longer idealized. This isn’t a fall from grace. In the first draft, our gauzy notions become more. Now we can do something with them.

Do we say shitty first draft because an idea made tangible isn’t immediately what we hoped for? It’s not a binary: writing doesn’t have to be perfect on the first try or it’s garbage. Artmaking is a durational practice. We work the material, and the material works us.

One year at the Tin House summer workshop, Jo Ann Beard said she doesn’t revise her work. She shapes language in her mind, then writes sentence by sentence. She’s the only writer I know who possesses this stunning capability. The rest of us need to see words on the page to work with them, otherwise our essays will remain ideas—perfect and unrealized.

How do I know if something is worth writing?

We don’t know what’ll happen until we write. If we knew, it would be a list.

I need my shitty first draft. Shitty lowers the stakes.

Risk is what making art is about.

It’s fine to risk and sputter. Maybe you’re still learning how to tell that story, or you need more emotional distance to see the undercurrents. Maybe it’s a building block that’ll help you write the next essay, or maybe you need to go deeper—you need more time in revision.

But what if this essay is a waste of time?

How can it be a waste if you learn something by writing it?

As artists, we’re here to move minds and shake souls with humor, grief, reflection, delight, wonder, and gorgeous language. Craft takes time and practice. The carapace of shitty—a brittle, cynical shield—stands in the way of us moving into deeper relationship with nuance and vulnerability. Flawless and gorgeous are not the same thing, by the way. Drop the guard and worry less about failure. Move that shit out of the way.

Ocean Vuong notes how our language is laced with hardness and violence: “You killed that poem. You came into that novel guns blazing. I owned that workshop. I shut it down. I crushed them. We smashed the competition. I’m wrestling with the muse. The audience is a target audience. Good for you, a man once said to me at a party, you’re making a killing with poetry. You’re knockin’ em dead.”

We hammer out shitty drafts.

We submit work.

We master language.

A podcast host asks, “Does your poem bang?” A cool kid’s way of saying, Do your words have resonance?

Consider how the mind internalizes these expressions, how we’re steeping ourselves in harmful language. I’ll repose Vuong’s question: why can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration rather than defensiveness and violence?

The expectation that essays will spring fully formed from our heads is ridiculous. Even Jo Ann Beard revises, albeit in her mind. Uncooked doesn’t equal shitty. There’s no reason to preemptively shit-talk ourselves—or set low expectations. The point of writing isn’t to remove risk or to pen something perfectly on the first try. How would readers know? What difference would it make? Would that prove you are perfect? Would you stop writing then?

Writing is revision and the first draft a gateway.

Rather than aim for shitty (or perfect), write towards finishing the first draft. Write to the end rather than stop midway to polish those early paragraphs. Write to the end so you have clay to shape, so you can see where to layer pigment. In revision, the work teaches us what we’re trying to say and to get there we need a draft.

The next time you write a new thing, delight in the rolls and wrinkles of your infant words. Celebrate those tottering first steps. Give that squirmy first draft space to change and grow in ways you hadn’t planned when the idea twinkled in your mind’s eye.

What happens when you nurture your writing rather than call it shitty will surprise you.

____

Gabriela Denise Frank is a Pacific Northwest writer, editor, and creative writing instructor. Her work has appeared in True Story, HAD, Hunger Mountain, Tahoma Literary Review, Bayou, Baltimore Review, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. The author of Pity She Didn’t Stay ‘Til the End (Bottlecap Press), she serves as the creative nonfiction editor of Crab Creek Review. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com

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§ 33 Responses to Against the Shitty First Draft

    • I put myself in the Jo Ann Beard camp for process. I do a lot of composing in my head before writing a first draft.The problem with this is sometimes the workshop & writer’s group feedback is restrained, thinking I’ve already done a lot of revisions when I’m really looking for the pushback and questions a looser first draft invites. When writing reads composed on the page, it doesn’t mean ideas and subconscious themes have been put through their paces.

  • Vickie says:

    You make a good point here. I like to think that if my first draft just isn’t working, that’s okay. I can keep sculpting my written piece and see if something is revealed. Sometimes something is, and I’m proud of it. Other times, I can’t seem to make it work. I’ll put it aside. Not always, but sometimes, I’ll return to it months later, and something will click, and I can move forward with the piece. I’ve come to accept that this not a flaw in me as a writer, but rather a nature process of writing, at least for me.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    I like the idea of speaking more kindly about our work.

  • judithsaragelt says:

    Thanks for this new angle, Gabriela! I always felt uneasy with “shitty first draft” talk but wasn’t certain why until now!

  • Thank you. I agree, but I also understand the concept of “shitty draft.”

    In a classroom intervention with a gifted student, her best friend and I insisted she write a “bad essay—really bad.” This made her laugh. She was 15, brilliant, and had never passed an English class because she did not hand in work. Her writing was never “good enough” in her own mind. The essay of her imagination was extraordinary and she did not yet have the experience to write it. But we made her laugh, we prodded and teased and (frankly) bullied her to accept that the essay would be imperfect, and that was an important step forward for her.

    In our own writing, the process is queen, the getting there not only for the story or characters but for ourselves. The raw material is not waste—I agree with you. We must chip away at our literary marble until we reveal the truth we know dwells within.

  • lindawis says:

    Wow! Thanks for turning my head around. I have used this phrase with my students, but you made me see we are unnecessarily putting our work down. I will never say SFD again!

  • Julie says:

    I like the term “puppet draft.” At this point I’m the puppet of my story. Next drafts… I’m the Puppeteer!

  • Gabriela, thank you for this new perspective… I heard Scott Cairns say once, when writing poetry that he looks for the words that “aren’t doing the work,” (my paraphrase.) Maybe our first drafts are more like scaffolding as we decide over time just what they need to hold up….
    (And hello from Renton! I just purchased your Civita book as I’m off to Italy next month.)

  • Julie Lambert says:

    Gabriela, I totally agree! First of all, I don’t like the word, s….., and second of all, I don’t like thinking of my practice that way. Thank you!

  • candacecahill says:

    “…write towards finishing the first draft.” I love this so much, thank you!

  • epmjd says:

    They used to say (I still do), that artist is another victim of poor potty training. Another prerogative of derogative persons. Well spoken, my dear! And well spoken is well written too!.

  • coachjulie says:

    Definitely goes out to my CNF and fiction workshops. The semester may be nearly over but they all need to ponder this as they move forward. Thanks, Gabriela!

  • Eilene Lyon says:

    Best essay I’ve read about writing in a long time! Thank you for this piece. It is so important to just get something down to work with, even if, as I just did, I delete the whole thing twice and find the right direction the third time.

  • JrAmberDove says:

    I feel that this was perfectly written. Thank you for this

  • Karen says:

    “Write to the end so you have clay to shape, so you can see where to layer pigment.” Thank you! Great essay and also generated a great discussion. In a sense, as Jan talks about and you do too, ‘shitty’ gives permission, lowers the bar, moves us away from the idea of perfection, but on the other hand why denigrate such an important part of our process. I will go and generate my clay with more pride!

  • […] Against the Shitty First Draft […]

  • This also reminds me of a term my screenwriting mentor uses. She calls the First draft the Zero draft. This always helped me to push through without self-criticism so that I could revise and edit into what would become a solid first draft. Scripts usually have a draft tracking number, as well.

  • Yes, when we analyze our language, we empower our mindset. Thank you for pointing this out.

  • Rebecca Skloot says:

    The “shitty first draft” is not a “cockeyed badge of courage” writers use to deflect the criticism of others, or that is a blight. Writing is hard and many writers are perfectionists who put so much pressure on themselves that it can be paralyzing (🙋🏻‍♀️). Anne Lamott’s point when coining the phrase “shitty first draft” was … don’t do that to yourself. Don’t silence yourself by feeling like you have to write something perfect or even good the first go round. Writing *is* rewriting (for everyone except Jo Ann Beard apparently!). If you’re a person who needs to give yourself permission to write a messy bad first draft so you have the lump of clay to make the actual sculpture during the revision process (like me and so many writers I know) … then do that. I call it the Vomit Then Clean It Up approach. Everyone’s writing process is different, and we should all do what works for us. This author isn’t a fan of the shitty first draft concept – I get it, and that’s fine. Sounds like she’s found something else that works for her in a positive way. Fabulous! But also, Lamott’s “shitty first draft” mantra has helped many generations of writers. For those it resonates with it can be invaluable and is … absolutely fine. Don’t feel bad (or god forbid ashamed) if you’re one of those people. Lamott’s whole point was, it’s ok, and you’re not alone. This essay just led me to re-read Lamott’s original piece, which I haven’t done in a long time and was glad I did. It’s here for those who are curious https://wrd.as.uky.edu/sites/default/files/1-Shitty%20First%20Drafts.pdf

    • Thank you. Exactly why we had to tell my student to write a “bad essay” because otherwise it would never be good enough and she was too young and inexperienced yet to write better. She had four years of failing English behind her for that very reason. (And a Masters in Marine Biology last I heard.)

    • Kristen Muir says:

      Agreed. “Shitty first draft” works for me because I already think my draft is shitty; Lamott’s essay offers freedom from that trap because she acknowledges that professional writers start with a nonstellar draft. She offers permission to start with whatever a writer can put on the page. Her essay has helped many of my students overcome their writing blocks, and has helped me sidestep my clinical obsession with language and perfection to complete writing tasks on time.

      That said, I’m inclined to begin calling the first draft the “promise draft,” the beginning that shows promise and the writer’s promise to continue to work. Or the “zero draft.” I accept the point that “shitty” is hard language that doesn’t encourage growth. Next time I teach English 1, I’ll write “shitty first draft,” “promise draft,” and “zero draft” on the whiteboard and let students pick the term that works for them. I’ll survey them to find out which term they picked and how that shaped their process to gain insight into this question.

    • Thank you! I live and die (and teach) by shitty first drafts.

      • Yes! We all need permission to accept our mortality and imperfection, to recognize how very badly we begin and to move on anyway to something better. That was the point of the “shitty” first draft (not profane, merely a vulgarism)—it gives us permission to go on.

    • stadams5 says:

      Yes.

  • Sharon Silver says:

    “Infant draft” it is, then. A beautiful thought. The work is brand new and delicate and just barely formed, and deserving of love and care to coax it to maturity. Thank you.

  • vrendes says:

    Couldn’t agree more! We need to value the work we do and speak of it with the respect it deserves.

  • judygruen says:

    Love this essay. I also dislike–intensely–profanity, even as it has become so commonplace. And our words do have power, so why give the first drafts such baggage? We also don’t know how, or when, material from a first draft may be the genesis of another work where those words will shine some truth.

  • Linda Thornton says:

    Well said. Thank you.

  • stadams5 says:

    I really disagree. The “shitty first draft” concept is a guard against perfectionism, and perfectionism stops more writers than anything. I also think the language keeps things loose and gives permission.

  • Laura Rink says:

    From one of my writing mentors I’ve adopted the term “discovery” draft: my first drafts (and often subsequent drafts) are about discovering what I’m trying to say/what the story is and how best to say it. As in all things writing, what works works.

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