Feel like you’re wasting time with your crappy first draft? Here’s how to find out…

wasting time

Reading time: About 3 minutes

People often suggest to me that they’ll be wasting time if they allow themselves to write without editing while they go. Here’s why I disagree…

Whenever I talk about the crappy first draft or writing first and editing later some people always object. Last week, when I ran a webinar for a group of graduate students at a Canadian university, the whole concept irked some of them. “They are very resistant to the idea of not editing as they go,” their professor wrote me afterwards. “At least half objected to the idea.”

I encounter the same skepticism when I deliver in-person coaching with large corporate groups, as I’ve been doing quite a lot recently. Why? For some, it’s a habit and — as anyone who’s tried to quit smoking can tell you — habits are hard to break. But for others the problem is fear.

I think it boils down to three types of worries:

  • Fear that their boss or client will be horrified by the crappy first draft.
  • Fear that writing a crappy first draft will take longer than the edit-as-you-go method.
  • Fear that the crappy first draft will turn editing into an absurdly painful mess, like trying to get sticky marshmallow out of long, thin hair.

Let me address these concerns one at a time:

MY BOSS/CLIENT WILL BE HORRIFIED

This fear stems from a misunderstanding of the purpose of a crappy first draft. No one else should see it. Let me repeat that: No one else should see it. The crappy first draft is for your eyes only. Do not show it to anyone else. Not your boss. Not your client. Not your friends. Not your teacher or supervisor. Not even a writing partner or life partner. Write it, put it aside for a day (more, if you have the time) and then edit it before you show it to anyone. Only with the reassurance that no one else will see it will you be able to write with the freedom and confidence you need.

IT’S GOING TO TAKE LONGER

My advice is, it doesn’t. I now write at least three times faster than I did with the old edit-as-you-go method. But we’re all individuals so, if you think your experience is going to be wildly different, I suggest you collect some evidence.

First, how many words can you typically write in 30 minutes? I realize there’s no absolute answer to a question like this. Some material is relatively easy to write and other is much harder. But you should be able to identify a range. For example I can write somewhere between 500 (hard) and 750 (easy) words in 30 minutes.

If you can’t answer this question with your own range, then take a couple of weeks to time yourself. Use a kitchen or digital timer or even a stopwatch until you can figure it out definitively. (Bonus: if you’re a freelancer, knowing this number will make quoting on writing jobs ever so much easier.)

Then, resolve to try writing without editing for at least two weeks. It will feel uncomfortable first, so give yourself time to adjust. See here for seven tips on how to do that. And be sure to do your writing-without-editing first thing in the morning, when your willpower is always highest (even if you’re a “night person”). Once you feel you have the swing of it, get out your timer again. I’m betting you’ll discover a net savings in time by doing the writing and editing separately — even when you add in the time editing takes.

IT WILL BE MORE PAINFUL

If you want to talk pain, think about your current writing process. Are you sitting in front of a blank computer screen until beads of blood form on your forehead? Are you staring vacantly into middle space feeling both blank and desperate — not to mention thoroughly inadequate — with your fingers sitting absolutely still on the keyboard? Are you writing a sentence, then erasing it, then writing it again, then erasing it again, then writing it a third time, then erasing it again, then…

Many people who dislike writing often enjoy editing. So, use the promise of editing as your reward for writing. In this manner, you can write your crappy first draft without fretting and without pain. Following that, you’ll get to do something you really enjoy.

It’s a first draft, not a bomb. Or as writer Katherine Paterson puts it: “I love revision. Where else can you turn spilled milk into ice cream?”

Do you manage to write without editing as you go? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. And, congratulations to Krithika Rangarajan, the winner of this month’s book prize, How To Write: Advice and Reflections, by Richard Rhodes, for her April 28/15 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by May 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below. 

Posted May 5th, 2015 in Power Writing

  • steelredbud

    I still have to knock that little devil off my shoulder that tries to get me to edit as I’m writing. His presence I attribute to all those years of trying to please English-teacher parents and teachers and the like. So I plan to refer back to your advice in this blog post from time to time. Sometimes we just need a counter-balance to keep us out of those old ruts.

    • It took me six months to break the habit but it was the best investment I ever made in my own writing.

  • Hi Daphne, this is really helpful, thank you. I find though that I’m really great at the first crappy draft but really crappy when it comes to editing. I find it painful and often give up. Have you written any posts about how to improve the editing part?

  • Cheryl Bryan

    Daphne, what kind of preparation do you recommend before starting the actual writing process — like for a blog post? Would you use mind-mapping every time? Or would having a loose outline be enough?

    • Yes, I mind map every time. I try to avoid outlining because that forces you to rely on your linear/logical brain and the part of the brain I always want writing is the creative part, not the linear/logical one.

  • Catherine W

    HI Daphne– I just started a weekly blog post for a popular blog, and it’s been useful and liberating to start with a crappy first draft. I write the first draft– my last one was rambling and contained at least three themes, which was two too many. Then, when I went back to it (2 days later), I was able to see which theme I wanted, and filled in the draft easily. For my academic writing this method is also helpful (with more iterations). Thanks for reminding us also of how much more fun it is to write this way.

    • Love your use of the word “fun.” It is FUN to write a crappy first draft.

  • Charli Mills

    I’m so glad you advocate this, Daphne despite opposition. It really does make a huge difference. It took me six years to write my first novel. I edited as I went along; I revised certain sections numerous times. Then I took a workshop on how to develop a book (Mary Carroll Moore). Pointedly, she was unimpressed with my progress and told me I didn’t have enough material to revise. I finished that first draft three months afterwards. My next first draft took 30 days to complete! Mind you, I have much work in revision but I can’t express how free I felt to write and how fiction responds well to uninhibited (unedited) creativity. I wonder, given the three fears that you’ve identified, if more writers would respond to your coaching on this topic if we replaced the words crappy or shitty. I know they originate with famous authors (namely, Hemingway and Ann Lamott) but maybe it’s too painful for a writer to call the first draft by so negative of a term. Even rambling first draft or simply, first draft might inspire more to discover the truths you speak of.

    • Hi Charli, First, I’m so glad you’ve freed yourself from the “got-to-get-it-right-the-first-time” monster. Congratulations! I’ve thought a lot about what makes people so opposed to the notion of a crappy first draft and I think it’s MORE than the name, “crappy” or “shitty.” I think people just have a hard time resisting editing while they write. In school we were all taught to focus on getting things right as soon as possible. I think the problem just flows from that….

      • Charli Mills

        So true! I recall how teachers spent so much time having students craft that first sentence, then the first paragraph.

  • Sara Naqvi

    It is best if someone is writing in his native language but for non-natives, language itself becomes a barrier in the fluent writing. I am non-native English writer and trying to build my career as a freelancer, but I always have a sense of hesitation while writing something. Please! advise something for the writers who are writing in other languages.

    • yehudit

      The biggest problem I find is when the PERFECT word is in the wrong language. Translation is always an approximation, and searching for the right word can take days. So I’ll just write it in the other language, and when I go back a few days or weeks later, the best word will pop out of my subconscious at the right spot.

    • I think exactly the same rules/suggestions apply (perhaps even moreso.) When you are struggling with vocabulary or grammar, the temptation to check the dictionary or grammar guide becomes almost irresistible. But resist it you must. A crappy first draft is not meant to be perfect. It’s meant to be a starting point. You can fix the errors later.

  • Alan Briggs

    The first time I read about the crappy first draft, I thought it was the most brilliant idea ever. I had been making no progress on my book for three years and couldn’t understand why I hated writing it. Since trying this I have done more writing in the last months and I am enjoying it again. Thank you for a wonderful help.

  • yehudit

    It has taken me some time to stop editing as I write (and I admit I do backside at times) but it does make the words seem to flow better. And when a word doesn’t come, I just put in ???? (in some bright color) or even write in the closest thing I can think of and put (fix this) next to it, and keep going. It’s certainly faster than stopping to use the thesaurus or dictionary every few minutes.

  • Heather

    I’ve recently started writing without editing after reading your blog, and it really helps. It is a bit difficult to break myself of the editing habit, and sometimes I hesitate a bit when my eye catches something I want to edit, but I just push myself to keep writing. Sometimes, when I have a very strong idea, like an organizational idea such as “maybe the section I’m currently writing would make more sense in a different section of the text”, I’ll write a note to myself and bold it in a bright color. It helps me relax and keep writing, knowing that I will find those notes to myself later when I start editing. It’s also very freeing to know that no one will ever see my first draft. Writing a crappy first draft has allowed me to actually write. Before, my need to edit and have the structure or outline finished before I could even start writing was so crippling I would find myself just staring at a blank screen. Now, I actually feel like I have the ability to be a writer, and I actually got an article published on a website recently, which I wrote starting with a mind map and then a crappy first draft. Your advice has really, truly helped me. Thank you!

    • So glad to hear this, Heather. Congratulations! You’re doing something smart by writing yourself notes of things to fix later (I call these “promissory notes.”) The next time you struggle with time management for your writing remind yourself that you can’t edit nothing but you can ALWAYS edit a crappy first draft.

  • Thomas O’Keefe

    I’d like to give this a try as I find that when I stop to edit I tend to lose my train of thought and come to a stop!

  • davethescribe

    Dear Daphne
    You are magnificent! After reading your post on the “Crappy First Draft” I have, over many months, trained myself to write that first draft without any edits.
    I now have great fun watching those unfettered thoughts flow from my brain, through my two typing fingers and on to the
    screen.