On this blog, and in programs I’m involved in like Thesis Boot Camp and Shut Up and Write, we frequently recommend just getting out a terrible first draft. We also call this writing ‘the zero draft’, ‘generative writing’, or using Anne Lamott’s term, the ‘Shitty First Draft’. Though there is good evidence for using this technique, people are often resistant to trying it out.
As I was thinking about it, I realised one of the reasons I am such a fan is that they are actually a pretty nuanced writing tool–and that I see about 10 different kinds of situations where a shitty first draft is useful: some of them intentional, and some of them accidental, but all of them good for diagnosing or solving writing issues, or making progress on your project.
What’s more, in spite of the name, shitty first drafts by experienced and disciplined writers are actually rarely terrible. If you are getting started in academic writing, though, it’s probably a good idea not to try shitty first drafts on your own. Try to find a supportive but critical writing mentor. You want a second pair of eyes to help you develop a valid sense of how bad (or not too bad!) your shitty first draft actually is. This may be your supervisor, but is just as likely to be an academic skills advisor, writing coach, or writing buddy.
With that all said, here are 10 uses for shitty first drafts, grouped into ‘when it is actually shit’, ‘when it is useful but not there yet’, and ‘when it is actually pretty good’.
Actually shit, needs to be thrown away first drafts
Most likely when you are starting or restarting your academic writing. These still are useful, for solving problems.
- Evidence you are not ready to write yet.
A first draft that is really terrible might tell you that that whiny voice in the back of your head telling you ‘you should be writing’ is wrong.
You may still need time to do more research or thinking. This result is quite likely if you are less than 3 months into a new project–and might well still be true up to 6 months in. After that, it’s probably not true, so get some help on overcoming perfectionism, self-doubt or writer’s block.
- Evidence you are on the wrong track and need to rethink your plan or approach.
It’s amazing how your beautiful plan can come undone when you start actually writing.
Use a reverse outline, tiny text, or narrative plan to see if you can work out what you should be doing instead!
- Clearing out a blockage.
This is particularly useful for sections you have put off for too long. There’s often a wodge of emotional and intellectual gunk encrusted around it. Putting it onto paper collects and stores the gunk, allowing the chapter to flow more freely.
Now all that shit is out of the way you can write better stuff.
- Just getting going writing–getting back into the writing habit, breaking writer’s block, warming up.
I actively encourage at least 10 minutes of completely free writing at the beginning of any extended writing session–like writing leave, a writing retreat or intensive–it’s the best way to warm up.
I recommend Robert Boice’s invaluable Professors as Writers, which includes some writing exercises if you are new to this kind of writing.
I wouldn’t do this for longer than an hour on purpose, but you might find you spent a few days this way by accident, and it’s not the end of the world!
Top Tip: Put your editing hat back on after a few hours to be sure you don’t spend weeks producing unusable stuff. Unless you have a tendency to hate all over your work and delete too much, in which case give yourself 1-3 days to write in this way and then take a week off before you re-assess. Maybe get your kind but critical reader to look at it and assess if it actually belongs in the ‘not perfect yet, but usable’ section! This will save a lot of work in to long run.
Shitty but usable first drafts.
Most of the time, this is what you get. It still needs editing, polishing, rewriting (of course) but it’s a first draft.
- It needs significant further editing, reworking, & research, but it’s on the right track.
40-60% of the writing work has been done. See this example from the Research Whisperers on using this technique for grant applications.
- It needs some light work, and then it can be shared with others to see if you are on the right track.
This is a really good way to write drafts if you are collaborating with a supervisor or peer researcher.
You can get feedback before it’s too hard to start again, to change direction, or ditch a section if you need to.
- You have already completed the bulk of the thinking-through-writing stage.
This is a significant step, particularly in disciplines where a large part of the intellectual work is about wrestling concepts or information into an academic argument.
- You know the size and shape of the work.
This is especially useful for people whose plans are not very good at predicting what the article or chapter is going to look like. I tend to underestimate how long sections need to be, my partner’s articles tend to turn into two.
- Gives you the psychological relief of having a full first draft earlier in the writing process.
Unfinished work is more stressful, and has a higher cognitive load, than a finished draft. Many people find editing easier than writing, and even rewriting is easier because you have something to react rather than facing a blank page.
Top Tip: Use reverse outlines, critical distance breaks and your writing buddies to turn your work from shit to shiny!
Plan for plenty of time to edit, polish and rewrite. Shitty first drafts often come in a bit of a rush, but editing works best if you can take your time and have lots of breaks.
Not so shitty after all drafts
Most likely towards the end of a thesis, book or project, where you have already written quite a bit of it.
- You still need to edit, rewrite, refine, consult, revise, polish–but it might be 70% there already.
This is where Thesis Boot Camp drafts tend to be.
As you get more experienced with academic writing genres, you should find this happens more and more. Your first systematic review paper is really hard. Your 20th should be much easier!
So there you have it. 10 ways that you can use ‘shitty first drafts’ to move your writing forward. I honestly find this one of the most useful, liberating and empowering techniques to help scholars and students move their work forward, so I encourage you to find ways to add this into your repertoire of writing techniques.
If you want to know more about the kinds of writing suggested in this post, I recommend Robert Boice’s invaluable Professors as Writers, which includes some writing exercises, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.