Letting Your First Draft Be Bad

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by Mallory Fitzpatrick

What’s the hardest part of writing an essay? People will give lots of varied answers to this question, but for many, the hardest part of writing is starting. Whether it’s a literary analysis, a creative writing piece, a cover letter, or a lab report, getting started can be the most daunting part of a project. I know that’s the case for me.

Deciding on a thesis or idea can be a challenge in and of itself. But once that’s done, I usually gather my research. And then I start to run into problems. I’ll start my introduction paragraph, get a few sentences in and change something. Add a couple phrases, then stop and go back to something else. I’ll sit, looking at my “completed” introduction paragraph, trying to figure out what’s missing from my thesis. This quickly becomes a counterproductive, draining process.

Rereading your work over and over again can be a really disheartening process, especially if it’s preventing you from moving on. Sometimes, tinges of perfectionism will stop me from continuing my writing as long as I feel like there’s something wrong with the introductory paragraph or previous material. How can I keep creating something good when my beginning is bad? Here’s the secret: it doesn’t have to be good.

Writing is a multi-step process with multiple drafts. The key to finishing your first draft, whether it’s an English essay or a science-fiction novel, is to allow it to be bad. That may sound contradictory, but it’s actually so important.

Your first draft doesn’t have to look pretty or sound good. It just needs to get you started. That’s why it’s your first draft. It can be messy, unorganized, and utterly lacking in cohesion. It can be complete word vomit, just you frantically releasing all the ideas in your brain onto a piece of paper or Word document. Get it all down–you can sort through it later. Just write!

Are you mid-draft when you realize you need a quotation that you don’t have yet? Write ‘FIND EVIDENCE’ and highlight, then keep writing. Maybe there’s a whole section on your outline that you’re suddenly not sure you want to write. Skip it and come back. Have some general ideas about a body paragraph but not sure what exactly you want to say? Throw in some bullet points and move on.

Allow your first draft to be informal, fragmented, difficult for the reader to understand. Most of all, allow your first draft to be bad! No one has to see it if you don’t want them to. But really, there’s no need to be embarrassed. First drafts are not supposed to be perfect.

Letting go of the pressure to make my first draft a beautiful, polished, near-finished product has changed my whole outlook on writing. It has really given me the chance to write without worrying about my end-product. After all, it’s just a first draft. Once I got into this mentality, writing became a far less daunting task.

No longer do I sit in front of my computer, agonizing if my thesis isn’t exactly perfect. Instead, I shrug, maybe highlight it to remind myself to come back, and move on. If I’m not satisfied with it, maybe I need to figure out my argument in my body paragraph first anyway. My first drafts are riddled with ‘notes to self’, highlighted parentheticals for missing citations, and sometimes, just a string of question marks.

The writing process can be hard, and first drafts can be the hardest part of that process. So don’t stress about crafting a well-written draft with a well-developed argument. All your first draft needs to do is get you started on the rest of the writing process. So, let your first draft be confusing, contradictory, and disjointed. You’ll figure it out. The first step is just to write.

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