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Productive Writer No. 5


Write Very Bad First Drafts


I hope you have been writing for at least 90 minutes each day. And I hope that by now you have a very bad first draft. If not, we will start to hate you. 


"I know some very great writers....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 mention 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.)" (Lamott, 1994, pp. 21-22).


One of the obstacles to writing is the fear that what we write will be terrible. It's a common fear. Even prolific, successful writers describe the anxiety and panic they experience when they think about writing. They procrastinate. They consider switching careers to something less stressful, like air traffic controller or brain surgeon. Maybe President of the United State or Oscar winner envelope handler at Price Waterhouse.


But think of writing as only a necessary first step in producing a good manuscript. "If you try to write and edit at the same time you will do neither well" (Sides, 1991). You have to write before you can revise and edit to get the draft you want.


Especially for those of us who must work to manage perfectionistic tendencies, it helps to have as your goal today, "Write a really bad first draft."


Many of us find it easier and less painful to edit than to write. If you are a better editor than you are a writer, then please stop striving for perfection. "Just get it down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy [imperfect] pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. (Lamott, 1994, p. 23). 


Lamott reassures us that in revising you might delete the first five pages when you discover that what you really need to be writing about doesn't appear until page six, but now you finally know what to write and which path will get you there.


By the way, throughout these columns I'll quote Lamott and others, and I'll recommend some good resources to help you with your writing and editing. But please note: Reading about writing does not count as your 90 minutes of writing. Organizing your desk does not count as writing. Reading, typing, and editing your notes do not count as writing. Not even composing mentally while you wash the dishes constitutes writing. Writing is fingers on keyboard or pen to paper and producing. Even producing really bad first drafts.


I sat down late last night with only 15 minutes to write. I wrote for 90 minutes before I looked at the clock. 


Have you written your 90 or 15 minutes today?

Jan Allen, Associate Dean

Academic and Student Affairs

Cornell Graduate School