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.”
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 Independence. Ernest 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.