Any writer or writing coach worth her salt will tell you that the secret to getting the words on the page — whether they’re for a blog post or a book — is to write a shittty first draft.
It’s the magic of professional writers. And it’s the secret to busting procrastination and writer’s block, and all the other ghosts that may haunt you when you sit down to be creative.
Great advice! But, like so much writing advice, no one tells you how to do it. Except yours truly. 😋 In this post I’ll be giving you a step-by-step guide for writing a shitty first draft so you know exactly how to execute this sage advice.
The Idea Behind a Shitty First Draft
When you get the advice to write a shitty first draft, it’s a reminder that you can’t write something polished and amazing in one shot.
If you’ve ever been in a play, you know there’s a big difference between the first read-through of the script by the cast and the actual performance.
At first, people haltingly go through their lines — no costumes, no scenery, no blocking (moving around). It would bore an audience to tears.
The director and cast are merely getting an idea of what the whole thing is going to look like. If someone flubs a line, you just move on. When Guard 2 accidentally reads Guard 1’s line, it’s fine. You don’t go back and fix it. You just need someone to say the line to cue the king to drink the poison.
That’s a first draft. It’s similar to a prototype.
Just as the play will get tons of hours of rehearsal following that initial read-through, your piece of writing will get tons of time for revision and editing to really make it shine.
But you can’t revise until you’ve got something on the paper. You can’t make the blank page more polished.
You Can’t Revise the Blank Page
Why is it so hard to let loose and write a shitty first draft? Well, because it’s uncomfortable to take action that feels less than your best.
You want to put your best foot forward, right? Good! There’s no conflict here. In writing, putting your best foot forward means using each step of the writing process. Drafting is one step of the process. Revising and editing are completely separate steps. Lumping several steps together grinds the whole process to a halt.
Imagine a contractor insisting on having each beam of the wooden frame of a house painted a designer color.
We’d laugh, right?
The best kind of first draft is the kind that’s more concerned with getting the ideas on paper than with making them polished and beautiful.
Because the job of the house frame isn’t to be pretty; it’s to give the house its shape and hold up the walls and the roof.
Coincidentally, that’s the job of your rough draft: to create the shape and hold up the walls and the roof.
So really, it’s not that you want a shitty first draft; you actually want a shitty-looking first draft. Or, more mildly, a not-pretty first draft.
But it’s still your best. Does that make sense? Because the best kind of first draft is the kind that’s more concerned with getting the ideas on paper so you can see them than with making those ideas perfectly polished and beautiful.
Here are 8 rules for writing a rough draft that will help you attain that oh-so-sought-after status of shitty first draft.
1. Set an Intention
When you sit down to write, have a clear intention about what you want to work on. Writing a rough draft is like running down a hill: speed is your friend and stopping creates all kinds of hassles. Knowing what you’re going to work on — the scene, blog post, or email — is key.
2. Cut Out Distractions
Turn off external distractions by closing your email and finding something for your kids/partner to do BEFORE you start writing — or simply by putting a Do NOT DISTURB sign on your door. Turn off internal distractions by setting up your document so that you don’t have to re-read what you’ve already written in order to start where you need to. Create a bookmark in your doc that says “Start Here” so there’s no scrolling and no temptation to go back and revise what you already have rather than to continue drafting.
3. Use Your Outline
Have some kind of plan or outline present, even if it’s only in your mind, so that you know where you’re writing to. Working from a plan means you’re focused on getting all the way through your ideas. This makes it less likely you’ll sit and wait for inspiration, a total first draft killer. It also means you’ll stay focused on how many ideas you need to get through, making it less appealing to spend a lot of time perfecting any one section. If you have a written outline, have it right next to you/open in another tab so that if you need it, you don’t have to search for it. “I’m just looking for…” are the famous last words of lots of distracted writers.
4. Move Forward. As Quickly as You Can
Don’t go back and re-read. Don’t pause to fix something. It takes a different part of your writing brain to revise an awkward sentence, research where a river is in Wisconsin, or correct your punctuation than it does to draft. Each time you switch tasks, you use up energy and lose momentum. Remember, it’s a waste of time and resources to paint your house frame! Not to mention you open the door to doubt each time you re-read what you already have. Don’t scare off the creative, free 5-year-old part of your writing brain by judging her efforts. You need her to guide you through the entire draft.
5. Use Placeholders
Stick in brackets when you don’t know exactly what you need in a sentence or a scene. Leave the space in the middle blank, or stick in the word or idea you know isn’t pretty, but that will remind you of what you’re trying to get across. A placeholder is the permission you give yourself to continue drafting even though you don’t know as much as you’d like to know in this moment.
6. Draft the Next Thing You Can
Give yourself permission to go out of order. Write the introduction to your blog post last. Skip ahead to the battle scene in Chapter 12. Remember, speed is your best friend. You don’t want one tough section to eat up all your drafting energy. Come back to it later. If it’s still a slog later, at least you’ll have used your drafting energy to get something else done so that you didn’t have more slogging than was strictly necessary.
7. Stop and Plan
The writing process is recursive. That means it’s not a straight line. You return to earlier parts when needed. If you tried using Rule 6 and there was no “next thing” you could write, stop drafting and return to planning. Do some outlining, brainstorming, or freewriting to figure out what you need to write about.
8. Know When to Walk Away
When both Rule 6 and Rule 7 leave you more confused, frustrated, or blank than you were before, it’s time to take a break. Writing a shitty first draft doesn’t mean feeling shitty. Writing demands a lot of creative energy. Even writing the frame or the prototype. So give yourself a chance to rest and recoup. Don’t get mad if you need time to rest. It’s useless. Would getting mad at yourself when you have to stop running and start walking during your first 5K because you’re huffing and puffing help? No. You need to build up stamina. Keep training. Keep building your skills. But don’t be a cruel gym teacher to yourself when it comes to writing.
Shitty, Not Pretty — Take Your Pick
If the idea of a shitty first draft appeals to you, now you know the 8 rules to use to create one. On the other hand, if you’re bothered by that phrase, simply replace it with “Not-Pretty First Draft.”
Whatever you call it, your first draft is structural. It’s that oh-so-important wooden frame of the house. The prototype. The first read-through of the play. The sketch that will go on to become the amazing painting.
Honor your first draft and its purpose: To get the ideas on paper so you can see what you’re working with.
If you want a deeper dive into how to create your first draft, check out my book Recipe for Drafting: Beat Writer’s Block & Finish the First Draft of Your Novel Faster. You’ll find more about these 8 rough draft rules, as well as a host of practical and mindset strategies to spend more time drafting and less time feeling frustrated.