The other day one of my Facebook friends who makes his living as a screenwriter-slash-writing professor posted some advice he’d received years ago from one of his own instructors: A crappy first draft is worth more than a nonexisting one. He followed the post with this endorsement: Words to live by.
As an author and writing teacher myself, I read this counsel and had two reactions. First, is nonexisting a word? (Isn’t the proper term nonexistent?) Second, here we go again with the trash talking.
I certainly agree that any start is better than a blank page. But why do so many writing authorities insist on name calling when it comes to first drafts? Take Ernest Hemingway, who warned his many disciples, “The first draft of anything is s**t.” And then there is the contemporary writing master Anne Lamott. In her hugely popular book Bird by Bird, she devoted an entire chapter to “Sh**ty First Drafts.” As an inspirational force, Anne Lamott is right up there with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Dolly Parton, and Sacagawea, but what’s with all the draft defamation?
Indeed, the practice of dissing first drafts extends well beyond published authors. So many of the aspiring authors who participate in my workshops in MFA programs, conferences, retreats, and at my own writer’s center have taken trash-talking their early drafts to an art form. They might as well be talking about a crime scene when they introduce their work. This is a mess. I mean it’s really, really bad. I don’t even want to look at it.
On one level, I get it. Most of us, including me, share the impulse to steel ourselves from harsh feedback by beating our critics to the punch. You hate my work? Well, I hated it way before you did! But what purpose do we serve by calling our drafts (and ourselves by association) derogatory names? Does it feed our ego, offer constructive guidance, or serve our work in any way? Think about it. On the playground, in politics, at our writing desks, has anything productive ever come from name calling?
When my Facebook friend published his post about crappy first drafts, it hit a nerve. Here was yet another writing instructor encouraging us to trash talk our work, and while I’m not a big believer in debating pedagogical philosophies on social media, I couldn’t help but respond. Calling something “crappy” disrespects the value of the nascent stage of the creative process, which is to capture first thoughts without censorship or second guessing. To clarify the finer point I was trying to make, and to sound less like a tsk-tsking school marm, I added, Drop the “crappy” and these words ring so true.
As is often the case when I try to engage other instructors on this issue – especially male instructors of a certain age who preach to the choir of Hemingway – I get a lot of blowback. Almost immediately, my FB friend reacted to my comment. He reminded me that he’d written more than 50 feature scripts! He added that each of his first drafts (and sometimes even his 10th draft!) is always crappy. “Crappy” isn’t pejorative if it’s true. And a good writer makes it “un-crappy” in future drafts.
Well, that’s certainly motivating, I thought. Who wouldn’t want to run to her writing desk, thrilled at the prospect of putting in countless more hours revising and editing, all to the end of making her work…un-crappy?
In truth, the response I got from Professor Fifty Feature Scripts also ticked me off. For one thing, I didn’t appreciate the implication that my editorial standards must be lacking, and that I needed a lesson on how to distinguish “a good writer” from a hack. More to the point, I am a seasoned enough author, instructor, and human being to know how counterproductive it can be to equate a draft – any draft – to excrement. This issue is more than a matter of semantics; it is about the significant ways our attitude can impact our work and our writing lives.
Recently, I argued this point with a man in one of my workshops who is a fine writer, when he isn’t wasting time excoriating his own efforts. “But trash talking can be motivating,” he insisted. This is an argument I’ve heard many times, usually accompanied by examples of success stories from the sports realm. For instance, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has told reporters he likes it when people call him names and say he can’t get the job done. Brady claims this inspires him to prove them wrong. I would argue, however, that most of us aren’t Tom Brady, who may indeed be motivated by personal insults but also by a yearly base salary of $15 million.
In my professional life, I have worked with hundreds of writers, from newbies to seasoned authors, and I can’t recall witnessing a single person who has found inspiration or much practical value from badmouthing their own drafts. And yes, this includes the excoriator in my workshop, who, paradoxically, is nothing but specific, insightful, and supportive when he offers feedback to his fellow writers. Despite (or maybe because of) his persistent badmouthing of his own work, he admits that he would have given up on his novel any number of times, if not for a few friends and his wife who have “bucked him up.” I’m not surprised. Someone has to drown out that internal gutter mouth of his.
I believe a lot of us, like the excoriator, would benefit from rethinking how we treat our first drafts. Sure, there may be times when writers benefit from tough love to keep our butts in the chair, or to revise yet again until we get it right, but badmouthing our drafts isn’t a form of love, and it isn’t even all that tough. It’s a defense mechanism, a bad habit, a knee-jerk indulgence that reinforces, even normalizes, negative feelings. (Tell yourself often enough that your writing is s**t, and you’re bound to believe it, which is the opposite of motivating.)
A first draft is just that – a draft – no expletive needed. As such, I suggest we stop picking on it for all its deficits, and first take a moment to appreciate what it isn’t – a blank page. Thank you.
What’s more, a first draft is a unique part of the creative process. It’s the first stage of developing your story, not unlike infancy is the first stage of growing up. We don’t go around calling babies little pieces of s**t, so why behave that way with your nascent novel or memoir? A first draft isn’t about achieving an orderly plot or nuanced characterization or polished prose anyway, so leave those expectations at the door. It’s about allowing yourself a freedom of expression without judgment. You should feel triumphant if you get something, anything, on the page, because that’s how the creative process works. One draft paves the way for the next…and the next…and the next.
Even after witnessing so many others beating up on their drafts, it took me a ridiculously long time to recognize how my similar behavior undermined my own writing life. Disparaging my early efforts served only to feed a negative attitude that typically translated into procrastination and stress-snacking, neither of which benefited my drafts or my waistline. What’s more, trash talking my work also made me a pain to be around.
As a writing instructor, I can attest that listening to people go on and on about how bad their writing is gets old fast. Workshop after workshop, I hear participants apologize for and vilify their drafts before sharing them for feedback. This practice expends so much time and emotional energy, I recently announced a new rule. “From now on,” I declared, “everyone has to introduce their work by saying, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever written!’” Of course, there were eye rolls. Of course, most participants felt self-conscious making such a claim. But I actually think this rule serves a purpose – to demonstrate that, as silly as it is to aggrandize your first draft, it is no more silly than doing the opposite. Though it can be a lot more fun.
The creative process is just that – a process. It is a series of steps toward a goal, so why start off on the wrong foot by hurling insults at your first draft? Yes, you can have an antagonistic relationship with your work, bullying your sentences and scenes into submission until they become un-crappy. But like any relationship – especially if you want to be in it for the long term – it helps to show a little understanding and appreciation. Good writers can make their work better by recognizing the value of a first draft – and every draft – in the creative process. Banish trash talking from your own writing life, and rest assured, this won’t mess with your mettle; it won’t compromise your editorial integrity; and, equally important, it won’t make you feel like s**t.
—Joni B. Cole is the author of the acclaimed book Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier. She teaches creative writing at various MFA programs, conferences, and social service programs and is the founder of the Writer’s Center of White River Junction, Vermont. For more info, visit jonibcole.com.