Scrappy, not crappy, first draft

You may be told something like “your first draft will suck, but will be better by the fifth revision.” Before you even start, there’s the expectation that whatever will be written is already below average. This combines with the pressure to write in the first place. The result is a commitment to work really hard on your crappy first draft.

Let’s start debunking the residual assumption of the “crappy” first draft.

I approach my writing with the goal of turning thoughts into words—to observe what I’m thinking and feeling. Yet, during the process, I often feel impatient and anxious. There are pauses of blankness and fickle noodling for phrases. Emotionally and intellectually, I’m composing a piece of writing, subject to iteration. But basting the hard work of writing with the pre-judgment of crappy adds weight to an already strenuous activity.

Instead of subscribing to the inevitable-crappy-first-draft forecast, consider the “scrappy” outlook. The definition of scrappy I’m referring to is one adopted by makers, like freelancers and small business owners—anyone who finds fulfillment in creating. Scrappy here means using what you already have and being resourceful. The adjacent definition—which, to me, is the most important—is the commitment to make something. The process may not be smooth and connected, the results may not be as polished and shiny, but a fidelity was reached that got the initial job done.

I strive to write about different thoughts (preconceived and what-not about an idea) using tools (my laptop and, in this case, the webapp Draft) to complete my first draft. Scrappily. I approach writing with a steady drive to produce a written version of my vision, for a tweet, a blog post, a book. Writing is hard work, not crappy hard work. The result is a first draft, not a crappy first draft.

Telling aspiring and practicing writers to write crappy first drafts with an eye to the proclaimed better draft sounds dismissive. Writing does not need to be readily discouraged with the conclusion of crappy.

Befitting advice for the writer, who often commits to a staring contest with the blank sheet, is not “A crappy first draft is necessary to get you started.” It’s: “Do your best work and go from there.” Rather than allowing the writing experience to feel like I’m toiling on a crappy first draft with an eye to future incarnations, I want to feel like I’m taking the opportunity to write the best first draft I can potentially make.

Because producing that “first draft” is hard enough, without having to feel crappy about it.

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6 thoughts on “Scrappy, not crappy, first draft

  1. Well said! I’ve always struggled with the ‘don’t edit’ advice out there because of this reason: it turns my writing crap. I don’t want to keep putting effort into something I can’t be proud of in the now, that makes me cringe to look back on. You’ve gained a follower of your Law of Scrappy!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • You’re welcome and thanks, Christine! What compelled this was a post that echoed the popular refrain of “crappy first draft” in order to get started and gain traction in one’s writing. This does pose a challenge, but I feel there’s another approach that’s not judgmental, particularly in tone.

  2. I would agree with writing the best first draft that you can, but only to an extent. The idea is to get what is in your head onto the paper. You mentioned toiling with phrases, which I have found to be a waste of time. There is a good chance that those phrases you toiled with will be toiled with again during the revision process. I think when people say “crappy first draft” they are referring to “crappy word choice, grammar, sentence and paragraph structure” not crappy ideas. The ideas are what we’re searching for, I believe. I think one way that I cured my ailment for wanting to re-read and go over every thing I wrote until it was perfect was by writing short stories. They can be wrote relatively quick, and one is in the revision process much quicker, and able to see a final “non-crappy”, we hope, final outcome before depression sets in.

    • Thanks, James, for your comment. Agreed about the first draft not being the last. As expressed: subject to iteration. “Toiling with phrases” can be viewed as a waste of time, but it’s part of the writing process. Making a phrase/sentence/passage that’s ultimately satisfying takes effort, ultimately.

      Your short-story method sounds great. Sensible. Flexing creativity with smaller writing projects to help nurture the desire to approach more ambitious ones.

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