Write Often and Well

One very popular approach to writing travels under the somewhat unattractive banner “shitty first drafts”. Jonathan Mayhew and I have tried to push back on it a little, but it has undeniable appeal for many students and scholars.

The idea is simply not to worry about quality in the early stages of a writing project. Instead, just set your mind to filling up pages with words and resolve to revise them later. Good writing, on this approach, emerges from editing bad writing. Jonathan and I object to this ethos because it doesn’t afford you the pleasure of writing a good sentence or a clear paragraph in a single moment. If you’re always writing “shitty” drafts and then editing them into shape, you never feel the joy that comes from putting a strong sentence together with your own hands, composing a solid a paragraph in your own mind. It really does mean you’ll be spending most of your time suffering through the badness of your writing as you edit it.

Anne Lamott, who is often credited with the idea, but of course did not invent it and should not be blamed for it, would probably object to my caricature of it. But it’s the caricature I’ against, not the very sensible idea of sometimes just letting your sentences flow out of you. This experiment of writing light, breezy prose every day can be taken as an example and, in fact, it could be argued that I recommend writing “shittily” for ten out the twenty-seven minutes it should ideally take you to compose a paragraph. My point, however, is that if you do this often then even your most careless sentences will feel like they mean something, like you are writing deliberately to say something you know. You’ll feel the (growing) confidence of your prose in every line.

Don’t denigrate your first efforts just to give yourself the freedom to write. Resolve to write as well as you can on a regular basis. You’ll get better at it.

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