All first drafts are bad drafts
That's what makes them good

All first drafts of anything are bad drafts. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing – the first version of it probably won’t be very good.

Understand and accept this, and suddenly the task of writing becomes a little bit easier, because it lifts a weight off your shoulders, and lets you use your first draft in the best way: as a playground for ideas.

This is how professionals do it

The worlds of journalism and publishing are designed around the assumption that all first drafts are bad.

Newspaper articles go through many layers of editing – from reporter, to news editor, to sub editors – before they get published. Every person who sees the copy has a chance to edit it and make it better.

It’s the same with books. Publishing companies employ editors, whose job is to help authors with genuine feedback. A good editor tells an author where their book is weak, and helps them strengthen it.

The assumption that first drafts are bad is built in to the process. The process is designed to start with bad first drafts, and use lots of people’s brains to improve them.

It doesn’t matter how bad your first draft is

The best way to start writing something is to get some rough thoughts down. Make them as rough as you like. Don’t worry if they’re in the wrong order, or if they don’t make sense, or if one of them contradicts another one. Just get something down.

Your bad first draft doesn’t have to be good prose: it could be a list of bullet points. A few lines and a picture. It might be a sketch on a whiteboard, or some sticky notes on a wall. All of these things count as bad first drafts.

All of them give you something to start with. Something you can share with colleagues for their input.

This is how artists work too: start with a pencil sketch, get it roughly right – then move on to the oil paints.

Bad drafts help you fix big issues early on

Sketching out ideas with bad drafts means you can focus on the big ideas of your writing.

You can make sure the writing has a point or a purpose. You can mess around with the structure – what should you say first? What should follow from that? How should you sum up and end it?

Share your bad first draft with others to get their views on these big issues, before you start writing more drafts with more words in them.

Once you’ve got the feedback you need, you can start writing a slightly better second draft.

This technique means you and your colleagues can focus on big, structural and strategic thoughts first, without getting mired in death-by-comments on a document.

No-one should worry about spelling, grammar and minor edits until the very end. They are small problems. Fix them last.

Bad drafts are playgrounds for ideas

One final point.

If everyone on a team (including the leaders) accepts that all first drafts are bad, that automatically gives everyone permission to write a bad first draft, about anything, at any time.

Suddenly, it becomes OK to share these rough, half-baked, not-quite-there thoughts with colleagues. It’s good to share them this way: feedback from colleagues will help you turn something rough into something better.

The bad draft is a place to experiment with thoughts. Try out catchphrases and clever ideas that pop into your brain.

If they’re good ideas, great – they can be refined and improved and turned into good drafts.

If they’re bad ideas, never mind – you didn’t spend long exploring them, and now at least you’ve got them out of your head.

Once you accept that all first drafts are bad, you free yourself and your team from the burden of expectations.

If everyone in your team or organisation starts with the same assumption, you can start to build a culture of drafting: experimenting with thoughts, in words, but with the universal understanding that some of the words won’t be very good. Not to begin with.

Filed under: work
(27 January 2021)