Getting It Down

By Judy Clement Wall

“Shitty First Drafts” is my favorite chapter in my favorite writing book of all time, Anne Lamott’s bird by bird. The book, for those of you who haven’t read it, is equal parts wisdom and neurosis (like most writers I know), and “Shitty First Drafts” was the chapter that spoke most specifically to my particular brand of crazy: my inability to embrace the concept of a draft.

The affliction can be debilitating. I have spent an hour on a single sentence. A day on a paragraph. It is counterproductive and frustrating. If I’m not writing to a deadline, it can result in pieces never getting finished at all. Or worse, never getting started. Somewhere in a corner of my imagination, there is a big pile of beautiful ideas I abandoned before I’d even typed the first word.

The chapter “Shitty First Drafts” is not so much about facing that fear as it is about slipping quietly past it, sitting down and writing, ignoring your inner critic (though Anne Lamott doesn’t call it that; her description of the voices in her head is worth the price of the book). It’s about trusting the writing process, which, of course, begins with getting words down. Any words. No matter how terrible, bumbling, unexciting or imprecise. Getting words down because that’s how every story starts. You have to write the first embarrassingly bad draft so that you can get to the second good draft, and then the third terrific one.

When I read “Shitty First Drafts” the first time, I felt like a prisoner who’d just been handed the key to freedom. I saw the blinding, beautiful, absolute truth in it. “Yes,” I thought, “that’s exactly how it works!” I put the book down, raced to my computer, wrote a truly horrible first draft of a story. A few days later, I wrote a decent second draft, and then a third that was accepted by a literary journal. I became a believer, a bird by bird-thumping evangelical.

“Shitty First Drafts” changed my writing life.

And yet…

Every single time I sit down to write something new, I forget it all. The critics in my head begin to chatter and they are far louder than either my faith or my common sense. They remind me that I have no idea how to pull off what I’m about to write. They wonder why I gave up a perfectly good Silicon Valley career. They do not approve of my word choice (however temporary), and by my third sentence, they are questioning my command of the English language.

I go through it every time, and then I remember. Just write – crazily, bravely, clumsily, fiercely, however it comes – just write. Everything good follows that.

It’s NaNoWriMo month, and while I think this shitty first drafts thing is essential to all writers, I never needed to embrace the concept more fully than I did during NaNoWriMo last year. You can’t worry about writing pretty when your goal is 50,000 words in 30 days. You just have to get the words down, trust that, in December, you can make them shine.

I leave you with this reassuring (and empowering) quote from bird by bird

There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go – but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and half pages.”

BioPic2JUDY CLEMENT WALL (aka “j”) is a Course Presenter for the Fear of Writing Online Course. She’s also in charge of guest bloggers for the FoW blog, and she holds the same community-building vision for FoW that Milli does. j has recently completed revisions on her novel, Beautiful Lives, and she blogs about the perils of life, love, writing and cheesecake at Zebra Sounds.

18 Responses to Getting It Down
  1. George Angus
    November 8, 2010 | 12:39 AM

    It’s really true. For myself, writing without a deadline is a recipe for perfect and slow first drafts. My inner editor has a field day.
    Nano has showed me the way to turn off my brain and write. I love just tapping away, nary a care in the world.


    • j
      November 8, 2010 | 12:10 PM

      I did love Nano for that. And at the end, I had 50k words that just needed to be rearranged so they made sense. (Kidding! It’s actually the basis for Novel #2 and I could never have done it without that sense of abandon.) Can’t wait to see what you come up with!

  2. Pamela Carlson
    November 8, 2010 | 12:51 AM


    On my bulletin board I have a New Yorker cartoon of two people at a party with the caption: Where do you come up with your rationalizations for not writing?

    It’s there because it’s funny, and because it’s a good question.

    Hurrah for the shitty first draft.

    • j
      November 8, 2010 | 12:12 PM

      Ha! That is funny. Is it funny that I could write a book on the rationalizations for not writing? 😉 Yes! Shitty first drafts! I should pencil that in on the back of my Write Like a MF t-shirt!

  3. Michael Lockhart
    November 8, 2010 | 1:37 AM

    “Just write – crazily, bravely, clumsily, fiercely, however it comes – just write. Everything good follows that.” This is kinda beautiful, and puts the emphasis on the process, which I love.

    As always, very Zen, j.

    • j
      November 8, 2010 | 12:13 PM

      And you have the proof right now that everything good follows that, writer-man. 😉

  4. @fearofwriting
    Twitter: fearofwriting
    November 8, 2010 | 9:05 AM

    Beautifully written, j. You say it for all of us.

    That affliction you described of agonizing over one sentence or paragraph and not being able to move forward except in short, awkward jerks was what gave birth to Fear of Writing. I had to invent a method to break me out of my horrible paralysis. I didn’t *know* I was going to invent a method—I would’ve run away if someone told me ahead of time—but my subconscious mind knew I needed to.

    And that’s why it has to be fun . . . to get to that wild bit that Anne Lamott talks about where you realize you love what you’re writing (or, at least, you love the *feeling* of writing), despite what the nasty, hating voice says.

    • j
      November 8, 2010 | 12:14 PM

      The mother of invention! I’m so happy that you are productive when you’re stymied. The rest of us have benefited greatly!

  5. Lois
    November 8, 2010 | 9:21 AM

    I love this! Nanowrimo and Fear of Writing were two major influences that got me writing while I was experiencing a bad case of writer’s block. Just making myself sit and write, no matter how “bad” it was–and doing it over and over again–dragged me out of it and made me realize how much I really do love writing.

    And thanks to this article, I just had to “run” to Amazon and buy the Kindle version. *g*

    • j
      November 8, 2010 | 12:16 PM

      Me too. I was writing when I participated in Nano, but not the wild, no-holds-barred kind of writing I wanted and needed to do. It was great for that – a huge breaking down of the walls that were holding me back from my best writing self.

      I have Kindle jealousy. You go, girl!

      • Lois
        November 8, 2010 | 1:38 PM

        I still struggle with the feelings that my words are stiff and uncreative, but I refuse to let that stop me from writing. I love my characters, and I love my stories, and I can’t see me NOT writing. 🙂

        LOL! I wish I could say I have an actual Kindle reader, but I don’t. I use my laptop as my reader. I’m hoping to get one in the somewhat near future, though. 🙂

        • j
          November 9, 2010 | 8:55 PM

          Me too. I thought I would never want to read books via an electronic medium, but then I read this article where this guy was talking about how many books and magazines he could store on his Kindle as he set out on vacation and I was sold. Someday…

          • Lois
            November 10, 2010 | 10:11 AM

            I mostly have free books, but I’ve bought several, too…many of them writing books. I can’t wait until I can afford to buy more! One can never have enough books…electronic or otherwise. 🙂

  6. Ann Marie
    November 8, 2010 | 1:57 PM

    I’m an editor in my day job, so on the one hand, getting the Inner Critic to back off while drafting can be a real challenge. On the other hand, thank goodness first drafts aren’t final caliber because that’s how I’m paying the mortgage. 😉

    I understand why people have bothered to define the shitty first draft, but there’s part of me that still winces when they say it. (Go to sleep, Inner Critic, sleep.) Is there another venue where we’re so critical of conditions during an early or intermediate phase of the process? We don’t call a painting bad because the paints have been mixed and the canvas sketched on.

    • j
      November 9, 2010 | 8:57 PM

      Yes, you’re right. The term is harsh, but maybe that’s kind of why I like it. It takes the very words our inner critics use and embraces them as good things. One of my favorite Chris Batty quotes is “the first law of exuberant imperfection is essentially this: The quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to risk making something horribly crappy.”

      Same idea. We should just call our first drafts “exuberantly imperfect.” 🙂

  7. catherine
    November 11, 2010 | 6:43 PM

    I’ve read Getting It Down several times. Thanks for sharing this wisdom. Since I’m fairly new to creative writing, it’s good to get it early on that it doesn’t have to be perfect first time out the door. I will always keep this in mind now, to tame the wild beast that just wants to love everything without editing. And will be able to address the discouragement that might come from thinking the first draft is shitty, so why go on, there may be nothing here to say.

    • j
      November 18, 2010 | 3:58 PM

      Well, the lovely thing about truly embracing a shitty first draft is that the editing process is really fun. I (and it sounds like you) find it much easier to edit than write. 🙂

  8. […] “Getting it Down,” Judy Clement Wall, Fear of Writing: Don’t let the fear that your creative output will be, well, excrement keep you from just doing it. […]

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