I’m about to give you advice that I should follow myself.
Repeat after me:
Your writing doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around.
Your writing doesn’t have to make any sense the first time around.
Your writing can be utter shit the first time around.
It was hard for me to even type those words without going over the grammar in my head a thousand times. I have a serious problem.
Throughout school, teachers always reminded us to complete the rough draft at least two weeks before an assignment was due, and I could never understand why. Weren’t first drafts basically final? They were for me.
Maybe it was because I procrastinated so much that my rough draft had to be my final draft, or maybe I was such a perfectionist that any writing I did had to be publishable from the start. Maybe I was just lazy….
I was definitely just lazy.
I’m happy to say that I’m in recovery (sort of).
From the simple act of writing every day, no matter how inspired I’ve felt, I’ve come to enjoy the rough draft and the fun it brings to the writing process. I choose to make my rough drafts hilarious, filled with expletives, excessive capitalization, and utter nonsense. They are an absolute delight to read out loud. Take, for instance, this example of a rough draft I wrote about Magritte’s C’est Ne Pas Une Pipe painting:
To my eyes, and probably the entire classes’, this is a painting of a pipe with the words “This is not a pipe” written below it in French. A smart-ass (yet valid) response to this discussion would be, “Well yes, that isn’t a pipe, that is a painting of a pipe.” What Saussure tells us is FUCK IF I KNOW I’LL LOOK IT UP LATER. Something something something relating the quote to the post blah blah blah. Although, as we have learned through New Criticism, intention is not meaning. MORE QUOTES SUPPORTING THAT THAT NOBODY ACTUALLY KNOWS OFF THE TOP OF THEIR HEADS WTF. In conclusion, SOMETHING REALLY PRETENTIOUS BECAUSE WHO EVEN IS GOING TO READ THIS.
It’s some of my finest work, right?
The final product ended up being a lot more polished and a lot more appropriate, so much so that I got an A and some really great feedback. To answer your question, I did put something über pretentious at the end, and my professor loved it. Ah, the life of an English major.
Rough drafts are a good thing. They are incredibly helpful for getting your ideas on the page and getting those creative juices flowing.
So, spit everything you have onto one document, and refine later. I mean it, your first draft doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. But if you need some encouragement, I’d suggest reading this article about how valuable a rough draft really is (because it is!).
If you need a bit more than encouragement, here are my top 10 tips on how to write a rough draft:
- Get in the zone. Lock yourself in your room, put on some inspiring music, do some pushups, whatever it takes to get in the writing mood. I like to do other “artsy” things before I write, like drawing, playing the piano, or crafting.
- Don’t let yourself leave until you’ve written what you set out to write. One of the hardest aspects of writing is the discipline it requires. So, glue your butt to that chair and finish that paragraph, then you can have that sandwich you’ve been thinking about for the past half hour.
- The obvious one: don’t get hung up on the little stuff. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Don’t sweat the grammar, punctuation, word choice, or flow of your writing the first time around; it will only lead to a serious case of writer’s block.
- Make an outline. If you need to organize your thoughts before you write (or while you’re writing), there is no better way to do it than with an outline. Outlines can be very useful for getting the meat of your draft written out. Sometimes, you can simply write transitional phrases around your outline and call it a rough draft!
- Know what you’re writing about. This is pretty important. Before you write, you should probably know the topic and the general “what” of your piece. Do research, map things out, make an outline (oh, hey #4). If you don’t have a “what,” you’ll probably end up with a piece of shit.
- Know where you want to end up. This is just as important as the “what” of your writing. You need to know where you’re going when you get in the car; otherwise, you’ll be driving around forever. It’s the same with writing. Know what point you want to make with your writing before you start, so you’re not writing without a purpose.
- Don’t expect to be possessed by brilliance. Though some writers will boast about a sudden rush of inspiration or a dream that told them what to write, the majority of writers have to work really hard to produce good content. Don’t go into it thinking your consciousness will leave your body and the writing gods will take over. Believe me, I’m still waiting.
- Let your imagination run wild. If you feel like writing about dragons attacking a Target, then write about it! It doesn’t matter how crazy the idea sounds. This works for academic writing, too! I once decided I was going to write my final term paper about how the Wife of Bath (from The Canterbury Tales) was a sociopath. I had to use my imagination to find the research to back it up, but by the end I had a fantastic paper that my professor raved about to his colleagues.
- But don’t think too much. My final paper could have gone horribly wrong if I had second guessed myself even once. If you think too much, you’ll muddle your creativity. This goes back to what I said about getting hung up on the little stuff. To get a rough draft on the page, you have to throw caution to the wind and not let those hindering thoughts hold you back.
- After you’re done, leave your draft alone for as long as you can. Seriously, take a break! Leave shorter pieces alone for a few hours and longer pieces alone for a few days. That way, you can view your writing with a fresh perspective when you’re ready to attack it again. Plus, you need to be as objective as possible when rewriting your rough draft. The advice “kill your darlings” has been passed down by writers throughout the ages. Believe me, sometimes your favorite sentences will be the ones that gotta go. You can’t make those cuts if you are still too close to the writing.
After you’ve brain dumped onto the page, your task is to make the words pretty. That sounds easy in theory, but it’s actually way harder than writing the rough draft. If you’re like me and you write nonsense as a placeholder for sentences, completing a second draft means actually committing to your content.
If you have trouble getting your rough draft down on paper, or if you are having trouble making your second draft pretty, check out this collection of inspiring quotes by famous authors. You’ll find that even they’ve struggled to write every once in a while. One of my favorites is:
One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off. —Lawrence Block
Write five pages today and tear them up tomorrow. It won’t hurt to try!