Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

How to Not Waste Your Words: The Secret to Writing a Crappy but Usable First Draft

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. –Anne Lamott

Okay. Let’s get this out there: your first draft of anything is going to be bad — I mean, really bad. Because that’s the job of a first draft. To be bad. And your job is to write it.

How to Not Waste Your Words: The Secret to Writing a Crappy but Usable First Draft

Once you write the terrible first draft, you can write a better second one, and an elegant third one, and so on. But you must start somewhere. As writer Anne Lamott says, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.”

We have this belief that very good writers don’t have to do this, that they are somehow immune to the trials and tribulations facing “terrible first efforts.”

This is not true.

Every great writer begins in the same place: in the land of insecurity and self-doubt. They are just as scared and apprehensive as you are. But here’s a trick the pros know that the rest of us can borrow.

Since we all start in the same place, the secret to better writing is getting through the crappy first draft quickly. And that’s just what they do.

The bad, but usable, first draft

Many writers get stuck in the middle of their first draft; which is like going camping and pitching your tent on the side of a cliff instead of hiking up to level ground. It seems easier to stop right now and rest, to think this through, but the safer option actually is to keep going.

Yes, this is hard. Yes, you will be scared. And yes, the task may feel so overwhelming you want to give up. I wish I could tell you this feeling goes away, but as long as I’ve been writing, it has not.

What does happen, however, is that you learn to trust this feeling. It indicates that you’re heading in the right direction, leaning into your fear and pushing back the Resistance.

Your goal, anytime you sit down to write, should never be to write something good. It should always be to write something usable. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s better to be an effective writer than it is to be a good one.

Being good is subjective. The definition of being “good”, especially in a literary sense, changes with time and tastes. But if you learn how to effectively communicate with an audience, any audience, you will always have a job.

Our goal is to write a bad, but usable, first draft. There are two ways to do this.

Method #1: Pantsing

The first approach is to just write whatever you feel, to dump words on a page and hope for the best. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King calls this “pantsing” because you’re flying by the seat of your pants.

You can do your writing this way — I’m currently writing a novel this way, so it would be disingenuous to say it doesn’t work. But I have to say that you are likely to waste a lot of words writing this way.

Why?

Because you will start in a direction and realize along the way that you really should have been heading elsewhere.

You will dump ideas and wait for them to come together. Then, they’ll find their place and you’ll see a thread, and the rewrites will commence. This is a bit of a fumbling approach, but sometimes necessary.

If you can avoid it, do. If not, write through it.

Method #2: Planning

The second way to write a bad, but usable, first draft is to plan it out a little more. I’m not saying plot out your sixty-four scenes ahead of time, though some would certainly argue that. I’m suggesting you sit down and ask yourself a few basic questions. Because in the end, writing is really just answers to questions.

What happens when three bachelors are forced to raise an infant? What do we do about global warming? What if the world we thought we were living in was actually run by machines?

All good writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, answers questions. So it makes sense that the place we begin is with a series of questions.

Whichever method you choose, you’ll want to ask yourself some questions. With Method 1, it’s happening while you’re writing. With Method 2, you’re asking the questions before you write.

Regardless, you’ll want to answer these questions before you finish your first draft, if you want to have something bad but usable:

Question 1: What is this about? (Theme)

You must have a theme. I learned this from my friend Marion, when she wrote, “All great memoir is about something, and that something is not me.” This applies to all kinds of writing.

Great writing is about something, and that something is not you.

So you need a theme, a worldview. Maybe it’s justice or truth. Maybe it’s hope in the midst of struggle and pain. But you need to be writing about something bigger than yourself. This is why we crack open novels, scan the self-help section, and go to the movie theater on a Friday night.

We are all seeking connection to a truth that is bigger than us, something that helps us make sense of our lives. No genre is free from this function. Even humor helps us see that life is worth living.

To start, make a list of themes. Note: positive ideas tend to connect better than negative ones. That’s something else Marion taught me (you really should read her book, The Memoir Project). So instead of writing about the pain of growing up in an abusive household, write about the power of forgiveness or perseverance.

Remember: writing needs to be about something, and that something is not you.

Question 2: What am I trying to say? (Argument)

You need to have an argument, a point, a reason for saying all this. Again, this applies to both fiction and nonfiction. Even if the argument is something as cliche as “love conquers all” or “you get what’s coming to you.”

All great stories from Romeo and Juliet to Breaking Bad have arguments. And of course, so does every piece of persuasive writing, memoir, or business advice.

Your argument should be a simple statement that fits on a three by five notecard that you can carry around with you or tape to your computer. It needs to be one sentence and easy to remember. It is what you base every single writing decision around.

Before you decide on an argument, let’s get something straight. You don’t have to be right. You don’t have to be 100% entirely sure that this thing is true. What you do have to do, though, is believe what you’re saying.

I don’t want you to outright lie, of course, but we are often changing our minds about what we think regarding truth and the nature of the universe, or even what we consider funny. So just because you might not believe this some day is not a good enough reason to avoid writing it today.

As one friend recently pointed out to me:

“It doesn’t have to be right; it just has to be interesting.”

The job of an argument is to get your reader to think.

Question 3: Who is this for? (Audience)

All writing needs an audience. The smart writer identifies who she’s writing for before she begins.

Maybe it’s a matter of style: “This is a book for readers of Michael Crichton style science fiction.” Maybe it’s a matter of need: “This a blog post for anyone who wants to understand the ins and outs of indoor plumbing.” Or even a question of empathy: “This is an essay for anyone who’s struggled with being present with their kids.”

However you answer the question, you must do it. Even if you don’t have an audience yet, you must identify someone that this piece of writing is for. You must imagine them as you write each word, seeing them in your mind’s eye, trying to persuade or entertain or inspire them.

All good writers does this, either instinctively or by practice.

Writing is about communication and without someone to receive the message, you haven’t done your job.

In summary

So there’s your crash course on writing a bad but usable first draft. Grab yourself a notebook and a pen and jot these three questions down, spend five minutes answering them, and then start writing.

I think you’ll be surprised at how much faster the writing flows and how much more usable the content is.

But remember: this is still going to be bad. Bad, but usable.

That’s what we’re going for here. Start with a one-word theme, a one-sentence argument, and a description of your intended audience. And then get started writing something really, really bad. Because that’s your job.

For other resources on this, check out my Three-Bucket System on how I gather ideas and turn them into publishable pieces. And for book-writing, you’ll want to check out the Five-Draft Method on how I think every book needs at least five very different drafts before you can call the thing done.

Let me know how it goes!

How do you get your first draft of anything written? How many drafts do you usually write before it’s done? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Asking questions is vital to my writing. The book I’m working on right now is structured around ten questions. I find that I need this structure before I can really get started on the writing process.

    • Good to know about yourself, for sure.

  • Marion Roach Smith

    Oh, my. You always write great copy. But to find myself quoted here, well, it’s a true delight. Thank you.

  • wendygoerl

    Hey webmaster! Do you realize I’m having a hard time reading this because there’s a signup window covering a good chunk of the screen, and a “get notifications” tab is covering up the [x]?

    • What’s a webmaster?

      • wendygoerl

        web·mas·ter1

        /ˈwebˌmastər/

        noun

        the person who maintains a particular website.
        (Seriously, a writer without a dictionary?)
        Not knowing if you set up your site yourself or contracted for it, I wasn’t sure who to address.

  • Brian Talbot

    Personally, I need to just keep writing to get to the end of my first crappy draft. If I don’t keep going I will get bogged down and may never finish. When I get to the end I am ready to go back and do my first major edit. What is amazing is how much good stuff leaks out as I am doing this first “crappy” draft. As Jeff says, the “secret” is sit down, fingers on keyboard, write. It works for me. These three questions are also hepful.

  • Leonardo

    Excellent article! It’s a good example of how to apply what it says.

    Personally, I have no conscious method to write consistently but usually the first draft comes to my mind in form of a sentence about something, like “Winter is warm”, no matter how stupid could be. Then I write down that sentence and later I write about it trying to explain why happens that on my initial sentence. Then I write the semi-final draft by letting the words flow as they come. The “final” draft is when I edit the written crap, like pruning weeds on a field. Sometimes, when I am at the publishing screen I give final touches to the words, but I try not to make it an obsession. Sometimes, “imperfect” is a good way to me to say everything flows the same way in the universe.

    Anyway, I’ll begin to work with your advice in order to learn how to make my writing more usable and consistent. Thank you very much, Jeff!

  • Helpful post, Jeff. I think the secret is to write fast, but coherently. I have a major problem with underlined spelling mistakes in my face, so I usually correct those and I also correct inaccurate words. Other than that, it’s done at rewrite time. However, I once wrote a 10,000 word ebook in a few hours using SIRI on my iPad. Basically, I spoke the book one paragraph at a time. Unfortunately, even though SIRI is pretty accurate, I ended up with top of mind words and certain collection of gibberish that was hard to decipher. After trying to edit the mess, I ended up scrapping it and starting over from a keyboard. Maybe with practice, I can speak a book in the future, but currently my fingers go to a different part of my brain than my speech does.

    • I agree, John. I wrote about that here: https://goinswriter.com/writing-speed/

      • For years, I used to be able to write a 500 to 600 word blog post in an hour, but now that Google is looking for authority, longer posts are supposedly better. I try to hit 1200 words or more on each post, but to make them authoritative takes a lot more time, since I need to do more research and add more graphics. I like the finished product better, but it can easily take me four or five hours to get it done.

        • Agreed. I’m shooting for 1500 myself.

  • Geoff… Thank you so much for this article. So much encouraging truths in this article.

  • Loved this! Very helpful. I made a little “cheat sheet” for myself based on this to review before I start to write. Here it is:

    1) What is this about? (Theme)

    * You need a theme, a worldview.
    * Could be: justice, truth, hope in the midst of struggle.
    * It needs to be about something, and that something is not you.

    2) What am I trying to say? (Argument)

    * It needs to be one sentence and easy to remember.
    * It is what you base every single writing decision around.
    * It doesn’t have to be right; it just has to be interesting and you must believe it.

    3) Who is this for? (Audience)

    * Style: “This is a book for readers of Michael Crichton style science fiction.”
    * Need: “This is for anyone who wants to understand the ins & outs of indoor plumbing.”
    * Empathy: “This is for anyone who’s struggled with being present with their kids.”

  • Jean Bird

    Helpful post for sure. I am a new writer and often do just what you said, stop writing halfway through the first draft and give up. I can’t tell you how many half drafts I have and how many notes of topics I want to write on and then never got back to them because when I start writing I read it and see it isn’t good. I am determined to get them out and start working through them. Thanks

  • Dave Ives

    Jeff, Thanks for this article. Going to help me and lots of other people. I get my first draft written by “throwing mud on the wall” knowing full well some of it won’t stick. I enjoy this process because I can write with abandon, I can write fast and not worry about any “English teacher” issues. For my current book I’m on my 7th draft making final edits. I wrote a blog article explaining how “Stephen King” helped me get “unstuck!” https://ivesguy.com/how-stephen-king-solved-my-plot-problem/

  • Prateek agarwal

    Amazing post, Jeff. I can’t agree more that the first draft is to be bad and crappy. I believe that the bad draft is a path to great one. How many times I look at my first draft in comparison to the final, published version and get Dumbstruck that I wrote that crappy one. I realized that I’ve been using Method 1 “Pantsing” unknowingly. Getting validation from an expert like you is such a great encouragement. Thanks for the words of inspiration and wisdom.

    • you’re welcome! it’s truly my pleasure.

  • Irapuã Santos Ribeiro

    Great one Jeff. I learned about planning for writing last year when I did a Cambridge English course and it changed the way I see the worlds I put on paper. Life is much easier this way, although, like you said, it is still no good enough, but that is also something relative to a reader’s view…

  • ajaib

    Amazing tips. I am in the middle of writing my novel. It’s so crappy at this stage. After reading your post I will finish it anyways.

  • John Stassinos

    Great post Jeff! This came at the perfect time for me. I’m in the middle of writing a novel and was trying to figure out what to do with it just last night.

    I’m definitely feeling very motivated now. Thanks!

  • I often use the “pantsing” method. I get a general idea in my head and then see where it leads as I write. This works particularly well for short fiction pieces. For some reason this kind of open approach allows me more creative room, which often leads to unexpected turns and directions.

    • i find that when writing stories, this is more fun than planning or plotting.

      • I agree, although it’s trickier. When it works, it’s wonderful. But sometimes the lack of structure leads to everything falling apart! Thanks Jeff!

  • Kathryn McClatchy

    Excellent point comparing being stuck in the middle of a draft to pitching a tent on the side of a cliff. I feel like I’ve been camping on the side of this crazy cliff for ages. I know the beginning and end of my story, but am having the darnedest time connecting them. I also love “Your goal, anytime you sit down to write, should never be to write something good. It should always be to write something usable.” Wow! That’s very freeing. I taught high school and college composition, but somehow I keep forgetting to apply these truths to my own writing. Jeff, thanks so much for your continued encouragement and words of wisdom. I’ve enjoyed your books, and recommend your work to others.

  • Big Shirl

    I like to dictate a very long e-mail on my smartphone to myself. I post to Word. It’s got most of my ideas included, and yes, it is bad. But I don’t care. At least the ideas are not swimming in the wrong direction in my head. Every day I continue to add a few more ideas to my writing. Once all of my ideas have been added into Word, then I enlarge everything double space to make viewing easier. I use the Thesaurus a lot in Word to help me select different word choices. I keep on whittling from 700-1000 words down to about 4-500 to tighten up my point and get rid of extra weight. Kind of like a diet, I guess, but it works for me. Thanks! Someone also suggested that once I’m done, to read it out loud for flow. I’ll have to try that next.

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  • beyond vibration

    Great post. Thank you Jeff. I have written the crappy/bad first draft and I came to a brick wall. This article has helped me to realize I can tear down that wall and rework my draft. Awesome! Thanks again.

  • Mahevash

    I took 3 drafts to finish my little book. I found that not taking myself seriously and hoping for the best helped me along. Oh and lots and lots of quotes. These are some of the few quotes kept me writing: https://www.mahevashmuses.com/2015/12/22/quotes-that-kept-me-writing/

  • Rose Noland

    Great advice!

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  • Sarah Callen

    My blog posts are easier for me to plan and I usually only do 1-2 rounds of edits before posting. My books on the other hand are much more difficult as I’ve always used the “pantsing” method. I have many half-written or almost finished books, as I have gotten stuck somewhere between writing and the first round of edits. Looks like it’s time for me to brush off those old dusty drafts, come up with a plan, and keep moving forward. Thank you for sharing!

  • Today I began reading on writing to give me fresh inspiration as I head into the New Year. I stumbled on your article and quickly found this is a good place to begin with my next writing project.

    I lead a conference on relationships. I designed the conference and wrote all of the material. I am finding it difficult to step into my next writing project, because it is focused on an entirely different topic. It also is not writing for a conference.

    Your article assisted me with where to begin my new writing project without falling back into the conference style writing. They definitely are two different styles of writing.

    Thank you for outlining a method for us. It definitely makes sense and instructs in a clear manner.

  • XIUFEN

    This is such a helpful article for me at this moment. I feel I have a better sense about writing. Thank you!!

  • Jeff Schwisow

    Great post, Jeff! This landed in the midst of getting back into my “blogging rhythm” while, as usual, I was struggling to write a good first draft. I had started using the Three Bucket System and was getting better at separating writing from editing…alas, life overtook my writing discipline and I slipped back into my bad habits.

    However, you specifically asked for comments on our drafting/editing approach so here is mine. As I mentioned above, I have been trying to implement your Three Bucket System. Just recently I have married this to Trello because it allows me to get things in one place and literally move drafts from bucket to bucket. I’ve started getting pretty diligent about collecting ideas as they occur to me (using a combination of written and dictated notes). As a very new thing I have started translating these into Trello cards that include the central message and key points of the article…love the idea of adding audience to this card and getting really specific (rather than the overall audience of my blog). I then do a first draft that is either really rough and needs references, stories and/or “meat on the bones” (my “Researching” bucket) – or is slaved over to get to something “good” (my “Draft Blog” bucket). I have separate buckets for each type (which technically means I have a Four Bucket System). At that point I’ll get someone else to do a content review (I have a couple of folks that I trust for honest, critical feedback, including my wife). I then take these content comments and do a refined draft…usually including a fair bit of my own critical assessment in the process . Often this editorial step includes an out loud read through as I find it really highlights poorly structured or overly complex sections of my writing (moving it into my “Edited Blog” bucket). I then do a final grammatical edit just prior to publishing…often this is done during the process of moving the article from Word to WordPress (my “Ready for Publishing” bucket).

    However, 2017 is going to be the year of the bad (but usable) draft!