Don’t Write A First Draft: Write A Shit Draft!

The first draft! Three words all writers hate.

If you’re anything like me, writing a first draft is a combination of:

Looking at a blank page with a mixture of terror and awe.

Cursing wordy sentences, vague metaphors, and half baked ideas.

And finally questioning your life and career choices as you see page after page of your sloppy writing staring back at you.

The horrible first draft is a fact of nature. It’s impossible to evade. As Ernest Hemingway put it:

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

But simply knowing this doesn’t make the pain go away. To get us to write freely and fearlessly we need to lower the stakes even further. That’s why instead of writing a “first draft” you should write:

A Shit Draft

What Is A Shit Draft?

The idea is a riff on Annie Lammot’s “shitty first draft”. I love Lammot’s essay but I don’t think she went far enough.

A “first draft”, even a shitty one, feels official: the beginning of something you will be judged or evaluated on. This adds a layer of pressure and gets in the way of putting ideas on the page.

To lighten the load I’m removing “first” from the equation.

What’s left?

The Shit Draft.

The Shit Draft is NOT a first draft. It’s an exercise to get your ideas on page in their crudest form. It’s a way to start writing with no stakes.

The Shit Draft has one mortal enemy: the empty page. It’s goal is to vanquish this foe with extreme prejudice. “Bad writing” is not only tolerated, but welcomed. As long as you have taken the time to write, you have succeeded.

How To Write A Shit Draft

Rule 1: Come Armed With An Idea

The Shit Draft works best when you come in with a topic or idea you want to explore.

This idea can be as vague as you want. In fact, vague ideas often work great for Shit Drafts! Your goal is to mine that vague idea for all its worth and see if there is anything there.

Rule 2: Set A Timer For 15–30 Minutes

Time constraints are crucial for a Shit Draft. Before you begin, set a timer for 15–30 minutes. Begin writing when the timer starts, and stop writing when the timer goes off.

Why 15–30 minutes? It is undaunting: Even the busiest writer can squeeze 15 minutes in their schedule.

The short time limit also shields against perfectionism. With such little time on the clock you don’t have the luxury of fretting over every word you write.

Rule 3: Don’t Stop Writing

Your hands should be in constant motion while writing your Shit Draft. This means no self editing, rewrites, and fixing grammar or spelling errors.

The Shit Draft is a stream of consciousness writing method. The primary aim is to get ideas on page. The more ideas the better. The ideas don’t need to be good but they need to find their way on the page. And the best way to do this is to get in a continuous flow of writing.

Rule 4: Give Yourself Permission To Suck

This is perhaps the most difficult part of the Shit Draft. Every one of your writer instincts will want to go back and revise something. Don’t do it!

Give yourself permission to suck for at least 15–30 minutes. Remember this is not a first draft, it’s an exercise to get ideas about a subject out of your head and onto the page. There is no time for quality control. Just write!

Why Do A Shit Draft?

Fits Into Any Writing Schedule: The idea of deep work and focused writing are in vogue right now. Rightfully so! Focus will be crucial for the next phases of the process, but it is not necessary for the Shit Draft.

If you want to get some writing done but don’t have much free time, you can pump out a shit draft on a subject you’ve been thinking about. You only need 15 minutes to write a Shit Draft. You may be busy but surely you have a 15 minute gap in your schedule.

Reduces pressure: All you need to write a Shit Draft is a vague idea and 15–30 minutes. No outline, polish, or master plan necessary.

The Shit Draft is for you and only you. No one else will see or judge it. If you get something out of it. Great! Expand on that idea in later stages of the writing process.

If you get nothing out of your Shit Draft. That’s okay too. There is no rule that you need to do anything with your work. If you don’t like it, feel free to dispose of your shoddy prose in whatever way you see fit.

Fleshes Out Ideas: Unlike the more “serious” parts of the writing process, the Shit Draft welcomes your wildest, whackiest, half-formed ideas with open arms.

Think of your Shit Draft as a testing ground for ideas. It provides a pressure free way to clarify your thoughts, explore them from different angles, and see if there is anything worth sharing with a wider audience.

It Gives You Something To Work With: There is a world of difference between a hazy idea that exists in your head, and a tangible one written on page. Hazy cerebral ideas dissipate; tangible written ones exist in time and space. They can be altered, edited, and manipulated.

The mere act of writing an idea down gives it life. It provides a foundation to build upon. But you need to actually write something to create this foundation.

The Shit Draft removes the barriers that get in the way of sitting down and writing. It’s a safe space to get the bad writing out of your system, and plant the seeds for the good stuff.



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Antonio Rengel

Antonio Rengel

Educator and Copywriter Who Writes About Creativity, Marketing, Pop Culture, And Occasionally Mindfulness Meditation