I want to talk about something that I’ve learned through the process of writing, but first I want to assure you that it’s not just about writing. Even if you have not the slightest interest in writing, there’s something here for you. Bear with me for just a minute and we’ll get there.
When I was taking English in high school, I completely didn’t understand why teachers would have us write a first draft. I thought that the things that I wrote were supposed to come out perfect, and didn’t understand why I would intentionally write something that was anything less than perfect. Further, I didn’t understand why the teacher would ask us to intentionally write something that was less than perfect.
Somewhere along the way, I read On Writing, by Stephen King. It had a profound effect on me and my approach. It’s a great book that I recommend unreservedly (and will probably do a book review on at some point), but the part of that book that was really earth-shaking for me was where he shares a page or two from the first draft of one of his books, and then shows what that draft looked like when it came back from his editor.
Friends, his editor shredded the first draft. There were more comments on those couple of pages than I’ve ever seen on any two pages of anything I’ve ever written and submitted for comments. (And, to be clear, that doesn’t mean at all that my writing is better than his.1)
It was a transformative experience for me to see that. I had always thought that if you were a “good writer” (whatever that means), that words of genius flowed from your fingers in a continuous stream like manna from heaven, and there was no need to dilute or alter the purity of the genius.
But, clearly, Stephen King is at least a “good writer.” Seeing the example from On Writing allowed me to see the truth: No matter how good of a writer you are, the writing process often involves revision, and false starts, and more revision, and adding new ideas, and then more revision after that.
The reason to have a first draft in that process isn’t so that the first draft can be any good. I mean, it could be good, and that would be awesome. But, it’s fine and probably even expected for the first draft to suck. As long as it sucks concretely, and in a way that is even vaguely in the direction of something that doesn’t suck, then the revision and editing process can take over and turn it into something great.
And, this doesn’t just apply to writing. It applies to any creative effort, or any effort where you’re trying to do something new. The first time you do anything, it’s probably not going to be very good, and maybe not any good at all. I remember my dad telling me once that the way to take a great picture was to first take 99 lousy ones, and there’s definitely a core of truth there.
The first chapter draft I wrote for my dissertation? Trash. Absolutely none of it made the final version. In fact, that chapter was so bad that it wasn’t even worth revising. But, it helped me refine my thinking. It helped me get some feedback that made it clearer to me what the point of a dissertation actually is (even though I didn’t like getting that feedback at the time). And, it gave me practice in writing that helped me write the next chapter draft, and the next, and so on.
The stuff I publish on my blog? All of it has gone through multiple rounds of revision and thinking before you guys see it. Sometimes the final result is pretty close to what I had in mind when I started outlining. Sometimes it’s pretty different. Sometimes, I discover through the process of writing out my thoughts that I need to go in a completely different direction. Regardless of what direction I end up going, it’s easier to get in the direction of something that doesn’t suck by writing out some concrete thoughts first.
If you want to create something that’s great, there’s no way I know of to do that without first creating a version of it that’s not so great. But, that’s okay. The point of the first version isn’t to be great; it’s to be a pointer in the direction of where you want to end up. When I can remember this, it’s a tremendous freedom from the perfectionism that I used to have.
So, get out there and do the first version of your thing! It probably won’t be great, but you’ll be much closer to the one that is.
- It might mean that I’ve never submitted anything to a professional editor. ↩