“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
—Louis L’Amour

Your First Draft Is Not Shitty

Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Ann Lamott said, “What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.” And I say, “Nope. Your first draft is not shitty. Your first draft is not a pile of poop.”

first draft

It’s Okay for Your First Draft to be Imperfect

Your first draft is a rough draft. Rough as in getting your ideas down imperfectly. Rough as in finding an uncut diamond. Rough as in a mountain before it became a grain of sand on the beach.

When you edit your story, it is like cutting the rough stone. Each draft, each edit brings the beauty of the written word. The beauty of the diamond, the beauty of a grain of sand.

Re-writing is writing. And writing is re-writing.

The Continental Congress made eighty-six changes to Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of The Declaration of IndependenceErnest Hemingway wrote forty-seven endings to A Farewell To Arms.  And, Marion Roach Smith, the author of The Memoir Project, submitted her essay on Spam Chop Suey to NPR after draft forty-five.

After I read Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott several years ago, I started to call my first drafts shitty.  Hello, little shitty first draft. You are a pile of poop. But then I started to believe my writing was really awful and I hesitated to write, because, it was, well, shitty.

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Last week in my animation class I drew several rough sketches of something I wanted to animate. Rough sketches.  Hey, why do I call my first sketches rough, and the first drafts of my stories shitty?

Then I realized I hated the expression shitty first draft. It had never occurred to me before how negative the expression was. Because I like Anne Lamott as a writer, I blindly accepted her description of a first draft.

Now, I will never call a first draft or a first sketch shitty.

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Your First Draft is an Uncut Diamond

Think of your first draft as an uncut diamond. Be kind to yourself. You are creating diamonds not poop.

What do you call your first draft?  Please let me know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Do you have a story in your filing cabinet? In your notebook? Are you thinking your first draft was shitty? Please take your story out of the filing cabinet and read it again. Maybe it is time to edit. Maybe it is time to turn the uncut stone into a diamond.

Find a story you have already written and re-write it. Or write a new story today. Write a rough draft, an uncut diamond.

Write or edit for fifteen minutes and share your writing in the comments. Please be kind and comment on someone else’s story.

xo
Pamela

p.s. You can order the July 8th, 2014, Hemingway Library Edition of A Farewell To Arms. It has all of the endings, and handwritten notes with long passages crossed out.

About Pamela Hodges

Pamela writes about art, creativity, and reflections on life with six cats, two dogs, two birds, and seven litter boxes. She would love to meet you at ipaintiwrite.com.

  • Sandy Stuckless

    I call my first draft ‘Unfinished’ because they’re usually just a bunch of half finished (or less) scenes that when I go back to start my rewrite get filled in like a whole in the drywall.
    That’s it! I’m building a wall and my 1st drafts are usually the framing and the joists.

  • Sandy Stuckless

    I call my 1st drafts ‘unfinished’ because they’re usually just a bunch of half written (or less) scenes that when I go back to start the rewrite process get filled in like holes in the drywall.
    That’s it! I’m building walls and my 1st drafts are the framing and the joists! 🙂

    • Lynnette O’Keefe

      I like that! In my writing I also expressed how important the first draft is, so we’re on the same page here. Thanks for your analogy. 🙂

    • Great analogy,
      xo
      Pamela

  • Lynnette O’Keefe

    Here is my first draft with all of its errors in grammar and other things. Looking forward to connecting with some of you.

    ” Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be. ”

    Khalil Gibran

    I think this fits well with your topic “ your first draft is not shit”. In the first draft you’re laying the groundwork to get to “What will be”. I didn’t have anything else I wanted to edit in here. For me a first draft is a private thing. It’s something fragile, like a newborn baby. As I edit it, it starts to grow. It becomes able to stand on its own. Only then am I able to put it out into the world where it will be seen and evaluated. The first draft is the creation of “What is” and the editing is “advancing” You can’t advance if you don’t have a place to start from.
    I guess the bottom line of what I’m trying to say is that the first draft is way too important and fragile to be called “shit”
    Boy, 15 minutes is a longer time than I thought it was! I think I’ve expressed what I wanted to say and anything else that I write here would be redundant. But there are only 2 minutes left, so I’ve done better than I thought. And I’m actually putting a first draft out there on its own. Please be gentle with it. Remember that it is fragile

    • Lynnette O’Keefe

      I’m new here. This is actually my first time doing one of the exercises. I should have waited until there were more posts here before I put mine up. Seeing the posts coming in, I think I misunderstood the instructions.
      Thank you for understanding.

      • Hello Lynnette O’Keefe,
        Your comment was very thoughtful. Thank you for being brave and doing one of the exercises. The image of a newborn baby fits well with a first draft. I love the idea of the story and the baby learning how to stand on their own.
        I hope you come back. The Write Practice is a safe place to share your writing.
        xo
        Pamela

  • Priyanka Chhadwa

    First Draft is like a broth in the making.
    At first it’s just tepid water. But with the assistance of a burning fire and the addition of more flavourful punctuations, it can be surely condensed down to an aromatic soup of ideas and devices.

    • Lynnette O’Keefe

      Wonderful analogy! Thank you 🙂

  • Gary G Little

    Pamela,

    I recently did that. I had a 2K plus word story that I realized was a very rough draft of the story I wanted to tell. So, says I to myself, break it up, expand each chapter/section and post those in the Workshop here on Becoming Write. It has been eye opening. First that I can write something longer than 1500 words, that I can maintain the continuity across multiple chapters, and that HOLY COW THIS IS A LOT OF WORK!

    Here is the opening paragraphs of what I call Bad Cheese

    Naming astronomical phenomena is the task of a survey team. They get only so many names for new stars. If the survey team runs out of names on their list, they may get creative in their naming. Such were the final two stars found on one survey. Two blue giants hidden from human observation were found and named by the team. It had been a tedious trip and at the end no one really cared. Thus Tedium and Apathy were catalogued as the final stars found with a planetary halo.

    Between those blue giant stars, Tedium and Apathy, the fabric of spacetime warped and bulged, as light scintillated and swirled on the quantum surface of a bubble. It burst, and a brilliant circular rainbow heralded the return of the The One-Eyed Jack to spacetime.

    The bridge of the Jack was the typical command sphere of a Federated Space Navy Interstellar warship. Setup for micro-gravity, there were no chairs. The center pylon was the captain’s console. Helm and Navigation were to the front of the captain, were Weapons to port and Science and Sensors to starboard. Jack Dunslo held to the console webbing to keep from drifting.

    “Get the sensors out,” Dunslo ordered after the ‘bow sparkled away. The lateral sensor operator moved to activate her console, but there was a brief, climbing hum, with every light on the console increasing in brightness. This was followed by a sighing “chuff”, and smoke curled from the base of the console pillar. Silence, and every light on the console went dark.

    “It broke,” said the lateral sensor operator, as she opened an access panel, coughed, wheezed, fanned smoke away, reached in, gave a twisting motion with her right hand, and pulled out the smoking remnants of a high voltage controller tube array.

    • Lynnette O’Keefe

      I like it! Do you know when it will be ready for publication? I’d love to read the rest of it. 🙂

      • Gary G Little

        It’s in the Workshop forum right now in three sections; Between Tedium and Apathy, Porta’Guise, and Decision. The last section/chapter will be posted either Thursday or Friday.

    • Hello Gary,
      You have intrigued me with your story. Your new world you have created. And, I want to know what happens next.
      All my best,
      xo
      Pamela

  • Nina

    I had to teach that “shitty first draft” chapter of “Bird by Bird” in my freshman composition classes, and I didn’t like doing it. I can understand that saying a draft is “shitty” helps to lower the expectations and allow you the freedom to write whatever you wish without judging it. I get that. But I never saw the problem with just saying a first draft was “rough” or “really rough.” Couldn’t understand the need to compare it to shit (which, if you think of it, is actually the *final draft*, digestively at least!).

    • Gary G Little

      Not if you look at as manure from which roses grow … 🙂

    • Hi Nina,
      I would have trouble teaching that concept too. I love your idea that the shitty draft would be the final draft if we are talking digestion!
      xo
      Pamela

      • Nina

        🙂

  • Thank you! I’m changing the background on my computer to a diamond so every time I sit down to write, I will remember what I’m carving.

  • Abigail Grech

    I have read and edited my story for an unknown number of times, some chapters I have completely changed, I added and removed paragraphs and chapters and this process has taken months and I am still not satisfied and still look at it as a first draft. Deep down I feel that it deserves much more.
    I write fantasy so everything is based on my unlimited imagination. However, this is also a disadvantage as I do not want to tangle the plot or add more characters as it will make it to complicated. I have read all the writing practice blogs and look at my writing to find that most of the relevant important points are applied in my writing
    Does anyone know what I should do? I’m in need of help.

    • Hello Abigail,
      Do you have someone to read your story to give you feedback? Joe Bunting, the editor of The Write Practice, has a great program called “becoming writer” where you can share your writing and get feedback. It is reciprocal, you offer feedback to other people. It is a paid program, but a great place to get feedback and establish a community of support.
      Here is the link.
      http://thewritepractice.com/members/join/
      xo
      Pamela
      I hope this helps.

  • Hattie

    That’s cool your topic today is first draft
    As I’ve just put together my first 10,000 words of a memoir…..
    Printed with no grammar correction and just glad I have the beginning of something to work with.
    It’s an exciting stage of the writing process….
    Far better than a blank page

    • Hello Hattie!
      How exciting! Bravo! A first draft! Yes, far better than a blank page.
      xo
      Pamela

  • EndlessExposition

    I myself have always found Anne Lamott’s quote empowering. My first drafts are usually shitty. That doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer, or that that first draft will never someday be an amazing piece of writing. But rather than bringing me down, the shitty first draft inspires me to improve. It helps me be more comfortable with myself and shut off my ego. That’s just my 2 cents, of course. Everyone’s process is different!

  • janet papich

    I call my first draft the skeleton then add bone and muscle in layers with a bit of blood a heart and tendons and ligaments to hold t all together

    • Great analogy Janet.
      Would the skin be the final edit?
      xo
      Pamela

      • janet papich

        no skin, when I write i feel like i have shed my skin and exposed all my nerves cheers janet

  • LilianGardner

    Thanks for your post, Pam, which is most encouraging.
    I’ll view my first drafts in a different light from now. I have a number of stories to finish. I’d love to cut and polish and turn them into gems. Hard work, yeah.

    • Hello Lilian,
      How is the gem cutting going?
      xo
      Pamela

      • LilianGardner

        Hello Pamela,
        I’m cutting like mad it’s beginning to take shape.
        I aim to turn it into a diamond with many facets.
        Wish me luck.
        With love,
        Lilian

  • OkieWriter

    I guess I am rather boring. I have always just called mine a first draft. Hmmmm, perhaps I should call it a “diamond in the rough”!!

    • Hi OkieWriter,
      Nah, you are not boring. You are Okie Writer, cool.
      xo
      Pamela

  • Thanks for this! Even though it’s good to lower our expectations for first drafts, it’s still helpful to see them in a positive light. This is my favourite analogy:

    “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
    -Shannon Hale

    • Hello Susan,
      Thank you for sharing a positive quote about writing.
      May you have many sand castles in your life.
      xo
      Pamela

  • EmFairley

    Pamela, I love the uncut diamond ethos! As you know I’m at the first cut stage now and I’m loving seeing the slow refinement of the gem. Thank you!

    • Hey Em,
      You are very welcome. How is the diamond making going today?
      xo
      Pamela

      • EmFairley

        Hey Pamela, I’m happy to report that the first refinement is now complete! Including today I’ve 4 working days left before the trip and they are going to be crazy as I try and get everything else done. Eek!

        Em xoxo

  • Wow, Pamela; this was a game-changer for me. You have helped me to do a mind and perspective shift. It’s so important that we treat ourselves well — and that usually means treating ourselves the way we treat others. Imagine mentoring a writer and telling her that she produced an sfd!
    Thank you.
    Deena

    • Hello Deena,
      Wow, a mind and a perspective shift. You are so right, it is all about treating ourselves and others well.
      You are very welcome. I hope you have a day filled with sunshine and that you make many uncut diamonds in your life to refine into gems.
      xo
      Pamela

  • Melody

    I am halfway through my first draft of my first novel and I just feel like it’s so bad. I’m struggling to motivate myself to finish. Yet I want the story to be told. This post has helped me. Time to get on with it.

    • Hello Melody,
      Keep writing, let your story be told. You get to create people and events, you can give someone blue eyes or brown. You can make a car fly or a bird talk.
      Your novel is like a painting, as you add layers upon layers of words.
      You always have hope.
      xo
      Pamela

      • Melody

        Thank you for your kind comments Pamela; I will press on and on and on!

  • Danie Botha

    Speak life or speak death.
    Referring to your labour of love as shitty, helps nobody, least of all yourself.
    Granted, if it’s bad, happy re-re-re-writing.
    But your’s sound like a brilliant plan: first draft is an uncut diamond.
    Perspective: cutting a diamond by hand is HARD work.
    So, let’s go make the writing SHINE!
    Thanks, Pamela!

    • Hello Danie,
      Ohhh, I love your, “Speak life or speak death.” So true. What we say does make a difference.
      You are very welcome.
      xo
      Pamela

  • Hello LaCresha,
    How is your rough draft today? Writing, and re-writing.
    xo
    Pamela

  • Pamela, your post could not have come at a better time. I’m finally going to write down the first draft of an idea I’ve had for years, and the self doubt is strong with me. To answer your question, I usually call my first drafts, “blueprints”. They’re like guides for future developments for me.

  • I really needed to read this today! My first novel I had NEVER thought of as shit. I knew I had a story to tell & I was willing to keep working until I got it to be what I wanted it to be.
    Now I’m working on the prequel, but most of it was the backstory that I had to take out of the first ms. I think I will call it a work in progress that will be polished and completed when I am finished.
    Thank you all for helping me past this roadblock! 😉 <3
    Sherrie Miranda's historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
    http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

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