Permission to write a terrible first draft


Why is it that when I have a huge chunk of time, when I have hours spread in front of me to do nothing but write, I can’t write a thing?  A whole day. Hours and hours and hours. That is what I had yesterday and the plan had been to write. What did I do instead? Three loads of laundry. Ate leftover chicken parmesan. Watched repeat episodes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

There is something about the expectation of writing that freezes me up. I do best squeezing in an hour here and there into my already packed day. Or even better- carving out two hours in the morning before the day truly begins. I had terrible writer’s block this summer (I know, I know, there is really no such thing. Truck drivers don’t get driving block. I know.) and I solved it by lowering my standards. I solved it, or worked through it, by allowing myself to write badly. I’m sure most of you are familiar with Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. I’m thinking of it now, how she encourages writers to write “shitty first drafts.” She says:

“I know some great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much…Very few writers know what they’re going until they’ve done it.”

This summer I wrote in a notebook. I wrote longhand. And for some reason, this helped me immensely. There was less pressure; the act seemed more casual, freer. I would scribble whatever thoughts I had onto the page, never censoring myself. I allowed myself to be the writer, not the editor. For two weeks, I took to that notebook, writing for an hour or two first thing in the morning. Surprisingly, some of what I thought was “shitty” wasn’t that bad when I read it over the following morning. There were some sentences, some images, some whole paragraphs worth saving.  And at the end of the those two weeks, I had a story.

Yesterday, I had forgotten all this. Or I had forgotten how it really felt to sit, pen in hand, and feel the freedom to write badly. It really does unlock you. Giving yourself that permission. But instead of allowing myself that freedom yesterday, I procrastinated, even coming once or twice to the computer to stare at the blank screen. We put so much pressure on ourselves to be brilliant right out of the gate, to get it down right the first time. At my thesis meeting last week one of the professors said: “Write every day. Just one sentence. Just get it down. And by the end of the year you will have a book.” It seems impossible, but I look back at those two weeks from this summer and see how I did just that: I got it down. And the words seemed to almost shift and blend themselves, forming a story before my eyes.

This is my declaration today: Just write. However bad it may be. However shitty the first draft. 


“You’ve got to get into the process. The process is liberating. The process is good. You take it word by word. You take it day by day. And you have to not worry too much.”

-Robert Stone


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0 thoughts on “Permission to write a terrible first draft

  1. david

    I find I tend to write better (or at least more consistently) when I’m busy. Which seems counter intuitive. When I’ve got lots of time on my hands, I procrastinate. I guess there’s some truth to the expression, "If you want something done, give it to a busy person."

  2. Christy

    Recently I, too, have given myself permission to write that first "dirty" draft. It’s amazing how much freedom I have by allowing myself to write sentences full of adverbs and cliches. I have accomplished more in my writing life in one month than I have in the past year!

  3. Nikole Hahn

    I had a better excuse not to write on my "work" day Saturday–I awoke to no power. Instead, I wrote longhand sketching out a two-book series. My actual book in progress sat inside my computer untouched. Then, my computer got a virus on Sunday (I promise. True story). Not a bad one, but one which required working on it into the evening to make sure my computer is healthy. And now I am 8,000 words deficit from my write goal per week. My next excuse will be more believable–the hamster ate my manuscript.


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