The JOY of the crappy first draft

crappy first draft

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

People often laugh when I use the phrase “crappy first draft,” but I’m serious about it. Producing one is exactly what will turn you into a professional writer…

Every beginning writer I know abhors the idea of a crappy first draft. It’s embarrassing, mortifying and humiliating. They know their boss or client is going to hate it. They’re going to hate it themselves because they fear it will make them look inept and unskilled. Thus, they don’t want to it exist on their hard-drive, even for a nanosecond.

If this is your belief, I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. You should LOVE your crappy first draft. You should worship it. You should seek to create it as soon as you possibly can.

There are five reasons why the crappy first draft is so important to writers:

  1. It will help you write faster. If your first draft doesn’t need to be perfect, you’ll be able to write in about half the time you normally take. (Really. Half the time!) Writing a crappy first draft means you don’t have to edit while you write. Many writers torture themselves, trying to squeeze exactly the perfect word or the best possible syntax out of each sentence. Poppycock! Instead, leave this faceting work for later: when you’re editing that crappy first draft. For seven ways to stopping editing while you write, see here. (My most useful tip? #6. Write yourself promissory notes.)
  2. It will make you feel better about yourself. No one ever does anything right the first time. Why should you be the worldwide exception to this law of human nature? We all make mistakes. And we all, inevitably, write crappy first drafts. Here’s how Anne Lamott puts it (although she uses the stronger epithet “shitty first drafts”): “All good writers write them.  This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” Feeling contented and self-confident — which is what you’ll be when you write faster — is essential to your progress. We don’t feel happy because we accomplish things. We accomplish things when we feel happy. Sean Achor speaks compellingly about this point. Do whatever it takes to make yourself feel good. Then write. A crappy first draft is an excellent starting point.
  3. It will allow you to use momentum. When I learned to canoe as a young teen, the most useful instruction I received was to synch my paddle with my partner. If we didn’t do that, we’d lose the “glide” — the time where our canoe slipped through the water with no effort on our part. If you focus on producing a perfect first draft, you’ll lose the momentum of words piling up, like cordwood or snow. If you start writing lots of words, you’ll get even more words, faster. (I know this is counter-intuitive. But it works.) Once you have a pile of words, you can edit them. Until you have that pile, however, you have only blank space, and who can edit that?
  4. It will free up more time to edit. The best writers don’t have superior thoughts or extraordinary talent. They have a greater commitment to rewriting. Most people don’t rewrite nearly enough in part, because they don’t have enough time. But if you can cut your writing time in half and reallocate it to editing you’ll be making a good start. I agree with E.B. White who said, “The best writing is rewriting.”
  5. It will help you with your planning. You might break an ankle, make a friend or eat something unhealthy by accident. But no one writes by accident. It’s a deliberate activity and it requires planning. If you plan for your crappy first draft you’ll be able to manage yourself better. I know, for example, it takes me 30 minutes to write 500 to 750 crappy words. This knowledge helps me plan my day.

If you are a person who abhors your crappy first draft, let me ask you a few questions:

  • Who else will see your crappy first draft?
  • If no one else will see it, why does it matter? (You can always shred it later. See pic, above.)
  • If you’re more concerned with how you look than what you do, can’t you just pretend that the crappy first draft never existed? (What’s to stop it from being your own secret?)
  • Do you think you’ll be able to reduce your editing time by writing a perfect first draft? (In fact, every first draft, crappy or not, still needs to be edited.)
  • Do you want to spend more time on writing than is absolutely necessary?

If you’re willing to embrace the idea of a crappy first draft, you might want to consider applying to my Get It Done program. Although aimed at book and thesis writers, anyone who wants to develop the crappy first draft writing habit is welcome to apply.

Have you embraced your crappy first draft yet? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me in the comments section, below. Congratulations to Cheryl Ann Alkurdi the winner of this month’s book prize, Writing In Bullets, by Kim Long,  for her Jan. 28 comment on my blog.  Anyone who comments on today’s blog post (or any others) by February 28/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of the copy of the marvellous book Weinberg on Writing by Gerald Weinberg. To see the comments box, scroll directly below.

Posted February 3rd, 2015 in Power Writing

  • Sylvain Martel

    I admit I do suffer from trying to edit my first draft as I type it instead of simply writing a first draft and accepting that it will require work later on.

  • Sue Ridewood

    Daphne, your reminder about the crappy first draft could not have come at a better time, as I embark on a challenging writing assignment with a new client.

  • sthrendyle

    My specialty has been short, pithy service pieces; almost like glorified caption writing to some degree. One thing I found is that a lot of (American) A list magazines (the ones with plenty of staff) will shred your first draft, no matter how much time you put into it. So, as long as you’re pretty much on-topic and give ’em what they’re looking for – fire away. Not necessarily with the super-buff first draft, but a serviceable second one. Remember, Time is Money in this business. That’s why we follow DGG and her awesome power writing tips!

    • Actually, time is even MORE valuable than money. Because once it’s gone, you can never get it back!

  • Chris

    I embrace crappy first drafts AND deadlines AND the dictionary. Would you ever consider reprinting the winner’s comment along with the announcement of the prize?

    • Hi Chris, I give the name of the person and date on which their comment appeared so you can go have a look whenever you want. And just so you know, the winner is drawn at random so it’s not a prize for excellence in commenting. It’s a prize for commenting, period!

  • caseyhibbard

    Exactly! I have embraced the crappy first draft just in the past 2-3 years. How liberating to have a draft done so fast – even if it’s very half baked. I feel more of a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. Admittedly, it was hard to convince myself in the beginning that no one else would ever see this dirty laundry. It’s a writer’s nightmare for their worst work to see the light of day!

    • So glad this is working for you, Casey. I’m always amazed when people don’t recognize that NO ONE ELSE NEEDS TO SEE the crappy first draft!

  • Burnice

    Hi, This is fantastic. It is exactly what I told my daughter last night when she had to write a quick 3 paragraph essay. Of course I used different words. She was totally lost. It worked. She got her points down on paper and was then a able to edit and make it better.

  • pattyd

    Yes! I’m a perfectionist at most things, but have learned to just let the first draft flow. Then later, I’m really itching to get my hands on it to fix my mess. I actually love the process of re-writing!

  • Ann Gomez

    I love it!
    The crappy first draft has been a real blessing for me.

    I’m also thinking of adding colour coding so I know where I am in
    different sections of my writing:
    Black: crappy first draft
    Purple: second draft
    Blue: Third (and hopefully final) draft

    • Just be aware that some people require more than three drafts (!) Brendan Gill used to rewrite everything 17 times. 17!!!

  • Scott Simmons

    I live by the “crappy first draft” concept – I do plan my approach in terms of a narrative but purposely make it topic oriented so I have a basic roadmap … and then I write. And often I do share it with others (esp if I am co-authoring an article) to get a feel for whether the high level roadmap makes sense. I should note that sometimes I will trash the “CFD” and start again if it just does not work … but mileage will vary …

  • Siddheshwari Sullivan

    I am about to start writing a book, and reading this blog helped my whole body relax. I felt a sense of freedom and joy. Now we’ll see what happens when I actually sit down to write (starting in March for personal reasons)!

  • Charli Mills

    I used to have a bad habit of writing, re-writing and trying to perfect my first paragraph. Didn’t get very far did I? But I love to write free as a running horse across a sagebrush flat. It finally occurred to me to let that horse run free and THEN come back and edit! Now I embrace the full joy of a crappy first draft, but truly the work is in the revision. But you can’t revise words you don’t have down on paper.

    • So many people develop this habit — in school I think. I like your image of a horse running across as sagebrush flat. So much fun!

  • tashi dekyid

    I am an ESL learner. Both my TOEFL and GRE tests have identified my weakness in writing in English. I always write a sentence and then edit it for many times before moving on to next sentence. I am very grateful for your blogs and suggestions on how to overcome this habit. Thank you!

    • It’s a good idea to edit, especially if English is your second language. But do it when you’ve finished the piece, rather than sentence by sentence. It will be a lot faster and more fun that way.

  • Well, it looks as though you have taken away all my excuses for editing while I write. Thanks Daphne, I get it.

  • chetan

    CRAPPY First draft is an excellent idea. I always wanted to start a blog to share my experience for quite some time. But all I was able to do was write a first sentence and stop, reason is, I would run out of words. I used the CRAPPY First draft approach to submit one of my assignments and I couldn’t believe that my first draft ran into 10 pages with in 20 mins. I love the process of writing with free flow of thoughts. Thank you for the wonderful idea.

    • Excellent progress! Just remember to take the time to edit that crappy first draft.

  • Omar

    Hi Daphne.

    I have question in my mind all the time make me depressed when i start thinking about it. Can I be a good standard writer in English and English is not my first language? Is it possible?

    Regards.

    • Omar, yes of course it’s possible. If you are determined and prepared to work hard you can certainly do it!

  • Curious

    With respect, Daphne, why is it that Abraham Lincoln could draft his Second Inaugural address (“with malice toward none”) with only one or two strike-overs? Or that Winston Churchill could dictate to his secretary (taking dictation on a noiseless typewriter to avoid distractions) and produce first drafts that required only minor changes? (I saw that evidence at the Morgan Museum exhibit in 2012: “Churchill: The Power of Words.”)
    Isn’t the advice to aim for a crappy first draft really an excuse for sloppy thinking? We humans have fallen into some bad practices over the past 150 years. A disciplined mind ought to be able to get it right, or nearly right, the first time out.

    • Dear Curious, With equal respect, I completely disagree. The attitude that — if we’re smart enough or disciplined enough — we can write without editing (or only minor correcting) is extremely damaging to most people. Did you know that legendary New Yorker writer Brendan Gill typically rewrote ALL his pieces 17 times? He was seen as a “master stylist,” too. For the vast majority of people, the trick to writing is diligent rewriting. I would call Lincoln and Churchill the exceptions who prove the rule.

      • Curious

        Well expressed, Daphne. Thank you for clearing up a lingering negative thought that has stymied me for a long time. You’re a wonderful teacher and guide, and this column ranks as one of your best. I am now in the process of tossing that long-held thought right out the window.

  • Karen

    Hi Daphne
    I really enjoy your Tuesday emails–I find them inspirational and useful. Thanks for the heads up on and free book offer of Weinberg on Writing. I hadn’t heard of it and it fits with what I have been trying to do with my writing lately.

  • Alan Briggs

    I needed this entry so desperately! My perfect book wasnt coming together in any kind of time and i couldnt figure out why. I was trying to edit and write at the same time. You are brilliant! Thank you so very much.
    Alan Briggs

    • Hmm, wouldn’t call me brilliant. Just someone who learned this herself, the hard way!

  • Beth

    I used to tell my younger students this very thing every time I gave an essay assignment. Most children get bogged down in fearing to rewrite. They want to scrub that eraser right off the pencil. I required at least two revisions and sometimes more.

  • SC

    I can definitely relate to this, I have been wanted to write (articles, a blog, a book…anything…) for a while, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to actually write out of fear of it being bad. At the same time I know I need to write many of those crappy first drafts before my writing becomes any good! :-/

    • Yes, that’s the greatest thing about a crappy first draft. NO NEED FOR FEAR!

  • CaptainKnowledge

    Is it normal for some lines in the first drafts to make zero sense? Because that happens to me a lot.

    • Yes, that can happen. If it’s turning out to be a problem for you, I suggest you spend a bit more time PLANNING before you write. Do you mind map, for example? This is one of the processes that can help your writing a great deal.

  • A Smith

    Was recently introduced to the wattpad application where budding writers post their CFD chapter by chapter as they write it. Even though the draft I read was really badly written and ridden with mistakes, the story was compelling and had me hooked! What a scary route to take though. It’s a bit like going out with curlers in your hair!! I like the sound of your approach better.

    • I think it’s important that NO ONE ELSE see the crappy first draft!!

  • Rosie

    Hi Daphne. A part of me thinks that crappy first draft works hand in hand with crappy first thoughts. And that part of me doesn’t think it’s okay to rewrite from crappy thoughts. A famous french author, Boileau (1636-1771), once wrote: “Ce qui se conçoit bien s’énonce clairement. Et les mots pour le dire arrivent
    aisément” (what is clearly thought out is clearly expressed. And the words to say it flow with ease). I’ve been trained with this sort of “mantra”…it’s difficult to let it go and free write. I feel strong resistance inside me :(( …and this makes me feel sad.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful post, Rosie. Here’s what I believe: The act of writing enhances our ability to think. (I can’t find the quote right now but Joan Didion says she uses her writing as a way to think.) If you’re constantly concerned with “getting it right” that feeling impinges on our ability to think, and, therefore, on our ability to write. Can you try writing with the “crappy first draft” mentality as an experiment? I think you might find it extraordinarily helpful…

  • A Smith

    I feel your reticence Rosie – it’s hard to give up old habits. But if the thoughts are worth expressing, it’s worth letting them out to see what they look like. I like the idea of keeping the crappy first draft private and agree it is a powerful aid to thinking.

  • Emad Al Bashesh

    May I consider If I’ve written some draft of such subject, this will lead me to final picture of what I want to reach, this represent the core material, editing will come but core ideas is still, hence I will not begging for more more time.

    • Yes, a crappy first draft is only ONE stage of writing. It will allow you to progress to further stages.