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Reimagining the rough draft

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

I was Googling inspirational writing quotes last fall, trying to find something clever to scratch into my $25 mug at a pottery painting place. I settled on the line above, a gem from Ernest Hemingway. I mostly chose it because it was sassy and might guilt me into working while I sipped my coffee.

But having the finished mug at my side through a few writing projects over several months, I’ve come close to considering that concise little quote as a mantra.

As I work through writing a book for the first time, I am taking Hemingway’s words to heart. This thing just isn’t going to come out right the first time. Here’s what I’m figuring out along the way about rough drafts.

At the bottom of the mug, when all tea has been sipped away, there's another note to self: "EDIT."

At the bottom of the mug, when all tea has been sipped away, there’s another note to self: “EDIT.”

Here’s why your first draft of anything is (and should be) shit:

Your ideas and intention aren’t worth anything until you’ve written them down

It’s easy to be afraid my ideas are bad and let that scare me from writing down anything at all. Take solace in the fact that once you get that rough draft out of you, it’s possible to make it better. Nobody ever has to see your crummy, disorganized, incoherent rough draft, but nobody will see any draft if you don’t start writing already.

Accepting it doesn’t have to be great the second you get it down means you’ll actually get it down

My aforementioned book project is a memoir and history book for a client. Coalescing the content of dozens of interviews covering a topic with myriad subtopics, over a period of 50 some-odd years isn’t easy work. Until recently, I’ve been defaulting to transcribing a new interview rather than adding more to the rough manuscript, because writing felt like wading into a murky pool with no water wings or sense of the depth.

Finally, I realized I know the content well enough that there had to be something ready to go into the manuscript. Getting something down in a document, not worrying if it repeats later or could better serve the story in a different part of the book, means I can come back later and have something to work with other than a blinking cursor and a static word count.

You don’t always have time for anything better

I learned during NaNoWriMo that 10 minutes is enough time to write. If that’s all you’ve got, embrace it, then go do your dishes, catch your bus or  put on pants before your guests arrive. Sketch your first draft now so you don’t risk losing those ideas aching to come out.

You’re not in university anymore (or if you are, you don’t have to act like I did)

I handed in a lot of rough drafts in university. Usually, I bothered to give them a quick copy-edit, but I never left time for refining and rewriting essays. Hell, I didn’t even want to read the essay once I was done. If I had scheduled the time to do a second draft, I could have had a better grasp of my ideas and written more coherently.

Lucky for me, in journalism we had a lot of editing built into assignments. Slowly, it occurred to me how valuable a rewrite would be to me and other reporters. That realization probably rang most clearly while I was working as the publishing editor of the student paper. I received articles that were good, but often upon reading them for the first time, I knew reporters could have done an even better job with another hack at the piece. Planning ahead to create several drafts shows results.

What are your rough draft habits? Let me know in the comments!




    • I’m no painter, but scratching the letters into the pre-formed mug was relatively easy! If you make yourself one, I’d love to see it! (or maybe a pottery cocktail glass?)


  1. I’m the one who keeps all my ideas inside, paralyzed by the thought of how crappy they could be. Recently I’ve gotten into pottery (which is what also drew me to this post!) and it is rewarding to me because even my beginner pieces are little gems in my eyes. I should treat my writing like this and not expect my stories to be professionally turned out from the beginning.

    PS When you get that novel done, – if you’d like – send me a copy and I will make and send you a victory mug:)


    • I think that’s a great analogy for how to treat your writing. When we take on a new skill, it’s easy to feel good about little incremental improvements, but I think we neglect to give ourselves as much credit later on in practice. Try getting some of those ideas out, even when they make you cringe a little. Even if only one out of every five or 10 makes it into a next draft, you’ve got that much more experience under your belt.

      Also—the book should be done by August… I look forward to swapping a copy for a mug!


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