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.
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.
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.
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.