Whether or not Ernest Hemingway actually said the regularly quoted “the first draft of everything is shit” (I’ve yet to find the source), it’s not a bad mantra to keep in mind as you gaze at the blank screen or delete (almost) everything you write.
The message behind “the first draft of everything is shit” is pretty obvious.
Don’t try to make the first draft perfect. It’s not supposed to be good. Think of it as the dumping ground. Just get something down on paper. Anything. You can do all the moving stuff around, cutting it down, padding it out, making it sound good, etc. later. Much later.
But what if, like me, you’re a fanatical editor? What if you seem unable to get beyond the first paragraph unless it sounds bloody brilliant?
Even writing the first draft of this blog post, I am making the habitual mistake of editing as I go along.
Despite the fact that nearly everything I’ve ever read about writing says NOT to combine drafting with editing, I still do it.
Making life tough on yourself
The experts say editing stifles creativity and makes the long process of producing good writing even longer and far more complicated.
And they’re right. But nearly 30 years of professional copywriting has made me paranoid.
With each phrase I write, I hear little voices in my head saying “that’s clichéd”, “that’s boring”, “they won’t like that”, “they’ll never agree to that” and other negative conditioning.
Soaking it up
It happens less when I know what I want to say. I almost can’t get the words out fast enough when I’m writing my diary or emailing a friend. But give me a new subject, a new client, a new market, and I’m hopeless.
I spend hours procrastinating. I ‘research’ online. Look for something similar I wrote last year. Get side tracked. Start a new project. But, at some point, I’ve consciously (or unconsciously) soaked up enough blurb and the first draft painfully comes together.
One hour to save the world
Far from the laboured first draft being a bad thing, it’s a necessary condition of successful writing.
Even the experienced journo bashing out the big story in 20 minutes has been thinking about, talking about and/or researching the subject for hours, days or even months.
Another regularly quoted chap, Albert Einstein, is reported to have said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty five minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding the solution.
Which is kind of like saying “do the preparation and the copy will (sort of) write itself.”
Write or die
But if you are one of those overcritical writers who can’t stop editing as you draft, there are some software programs that can help.
Write or Die 2 by Dr. Wicked punishes you if you don’t keep writing.
I opt for the ‘annoying sound’ consequence mode. But you can choose ‘kamikaze’ and watch your words being erased if you hesitate too long.
David Mitchell, in his trademark acerbic humour, writes a wonderful review of Write or Die in The Guardian.
Also, writer and writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant has some excellent words of wisdom on how to stop editing while you write.
Don’t beat yourself up if that first draft seems to be going nowhere. Providing you’re not being overcritical, it will come together eventually. It always does.
After all, you have at least two geniuses giving you permission to make a bad job of things – initially.
But if all else fails and you'd like me to give you a quote