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Shitty First Drafts

by Anne Lamott from Bird by Bird


Born in San Francisco in I 954, Anne Lantott is a graduate of Goucher College in Baltimore and is the author numerous novels and nonfiction books, including Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, from which this excerpt is taken. Her title comes from a family story. When her brother, at age 10, became overwhelmed while writing a report on birds, her writer father’s comforting advice was, “Bird-by-bird, Buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” In the following selection, Lamott writes about the power and the usefulness of first drafts, of getting ideas on paper just for the purpose of later expanding, clarifying, and organizing them. For many writers, just as for Lamott’s brother, there’s reassurance in allowing yourself to write a messy first draft, knowing each subsequent draft will refine what’s already there.

All good writers write [shitty first drafts.] This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.

I know some very great writers. writers you love who write beautifully- and have made a great deal of money. and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right. one of them does. but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.

(Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)

Very few writers really know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.

One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely. “lt’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do–you can either type or kill yourself.”

We all often f’eel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time.

For me and most of the other writers I know. writing is not rapturous. In fact. the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well. so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental. weepy. emotional territory, you let him.

Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational. grown-up means.

Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational. grown-up means.  There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go–but there was no way to get to this without first getting through that first five and a half pages.

I used to write food reviews… These reviews always took two days to write. [With every review I’d think] It’s over. I’m not going to be able to get the magic to work this time. l’m ruined. I’m through. I’m toast. Maybe, I’d think, I can get my old job back as a clerk-typist. But probably not. I’d get up and study my teeth in the mirror for a while. Then I’d stop, remember to breathe. make a few phone calls, hit the kitchen and chow down. Eventually I’d go back and sit down at my desk, and sigh for the next ten minutes… and the answer would come: all I had to do was to write a really shitty first draft of, say, the opening paragraph. And no one was going to see it.

So I’d start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible. I’d write a lead paragraph that was a whole page, even though the entire review could only be three pages long, and then I’d start writing up descriptions of the food, one dish at a time, bird by bird, and the critics would be sitting on my shoulders, commenting like cartoon characters. They’d be pretending to snore. or rolling their eyes at my overwrought descriptions… But because by then I had been writing for so long, I would eventually let myself trust the process–sort of. More or less.

I’d write a first draft that was maybe twice as long as it should be, with a self-indulgent and boring beginning, stupefying descriptions of the meal, lots of quotes from my black-humored friends that made them sound more like the Manson girls than food lovers, and no ending to speak of. The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.

The next day, I’d sit down, go through it all with a colored pen, take out everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere on the second page, figure out a kicky place to end it, and then write a second draft. It always turned out fine, sometimes even funny and weird and helpful.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything–down on paper.

A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

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