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Our Process: Shitty First Drafts

by Going Slowly

This entry is part of an ongoing series about how we've documented our adventure.

When we sit down to inspect our notes and bloobs, ready to shape the mass of discombobulated sentences into a journal entry, the words sometimes flow from our fingertips with ease. If we're feeling inspired, or particularly reflective, getting a first draft written can be pleasingly free of toil. But, this is the exception to the rule. Most of the time, getting into the process has become a well-worn and familiar struggle.

Writing is easy. Just put a sheet of paper in the typewriter and start bleeding.

Thomas Wolfe

Our biggest roadblock to a productive writing session (probably a productive anything) is a mental barrier. It's the insidious pack of hounds nipping at the back of our minds with treacherous thoughts like: "I don't actually feel like writing right now. In fact, I HATE writing."

If we don't fight back early on, thoughts like the above can easily devolve into: "This is the worst, most banal thing I have ever written, I don't care about a single word of it, and I'm not a real writer anyhow. WHAT IS THE POINT!?"

Once the negativity-and-doubt-spiral passes a certain stage, it can be very hard for us to slam a blast door in the face of these whinging voices, and get down to business. If we don't act immediately, it might be some time before we realize we've blown the last hour or two doing something a little less like writing, and a little more like this:

  1. Stare at screen blankly.

  2. Develop sudden urge to check email.

  3. Dammit, no email.

  4. Stare at screen blankly.

  5. Poke around in Google Reader.

  6. Procrastinate by programming on whatever project is currently outstanding. (Tyler)

  7. Stare at screen blankly, plunk out one or two words.

  8. Look on in disgust; these are the WORST two words I have EVER written.

  9. Turn to one another and say, "Let's quit journaling." / "Should we quit journaling?" / "YEAH, LET'S QUIT, I HATE THIS!"

  10. "We should probably get started huh?"

  11. Begin again at item #1.

Once we've paced back and forth long enough, hand in hand with these useless and painfully perfidious thoughts, we might happen to remember the tools we've developed to combat them. Things always take a drastic turn for the productive once we have. The first big one is high on our list of favorite sayings (the utility of which Tyler is so proud, it will appear as a "real person" quote below):

It's not about what you want right now, it's about what you said you would do.

Tyler Kellen

Once we're willing to actually write at all, the second tool comes into play. Now, it's time for what Anne Lamott calls the Shitty First Draft. It is always a relief and a revelation to remember that our writing (initially) doesn't have to be good.

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."

Anne Lamott

For us, the shitty first draft is about free-flowing words, about forming bloobs into paragraphs and expanding salient details. It's about creating an overabundance of material from which to later mold and cull and sculpt. It is not about making sure that there is some sort of enticing introduction, or a fabulously wrapped-up conclusion.

Our first goal is not to write something amazing. Our goal is simply to write.


I start with whatever I find inspiring at the moment. Because we now have so many journals to write (we're something like 70 behind at the moment) I pick any story that I have the smallest inkling of a desire to work on. Allowing myself to write something truly crappy opens the floodgates for creativity to flow.


I used to really struggle with my first drafts, and to some extent, still do. My perfectionist tendencies can halt my writing productivity if I'm not careful. Instead of getting anything written, I'll agonize for hours over the perceived-perfection of my first paragraph, going so far as to rewrite sentences so the words of our ragged-right text flow exactly where I want them (which is totally pointless for a myriad of reasons).

I also have a tendency to dive into my programming projects when I can't get started, hiding behind the false-justification that because I am being paid to do it, it is somehow more important or worthwhile. In reality, I just find it easier.

I'm getting better at allowing myself to write something truly awful, but Tara regularly has to remind me to skip to the middle, skip to the end, skip to anything I care about, to get me going.

Once the dust has cleared and there is a very rough, very shitty first draft in front of us, the editing process begins. Now, the scissors come out and it's no longer a jolly game of prose pouring forth, no matter what the quality. It's time to hack it all apart so we can piece it back together again.

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.

Ernest Hemingway

More on that next time!

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Well ..... we are glad you go through it :) and so are many others!!!
8 days .... eek!!!!
Posted by Jim & Sandra on February 16th, 2011 at 2:09 PM
So, so spot on! You have described the essence of the writing process. Thanks for enduring this almost daily to inform and entertain us with your adventures!! We are grateful.
Posted by Debbie on February 17th, 2011 at 12:37 AM
Your post came at the absolutely perfect time for me, as I sit here cruising my favorite blogs to avoid a copywriting assignment that I've been putting off for over a month. I think I'll read it again...and then get to work. :)
Posted by Kate on February 17th, 2011 at 3:33 AM
I can't believe your trip is almost over. Your trip and your writing has been sustaining me for the past two years! I'm a bit sad that there will not be daily updates, but I understand. Thank you for the inspiration and the insight, and enjoy the last bit of your trip to the fullest.
Posted by Astrid on February 17th, 2011 at 6:43 AM
I can't tell you the number of times my mother has said to me "all you need to do is get your shitty first draft," particularly while I was working on my master's thesis. I think my favorite way to unblock my writing process is to take my pen to paper and just write, even if this means "ok I don't know how to write at all about this and i know i'm not going to be able to say it the way that i want, but let's just try" and eventually the stream of consciousness garbage gets me into Actual Writing.

I also so appreciate your dedication to this difficult process. It has been delightful to share your journey with you through your words and pictures.

~Julia H.
Posted by Julia on February 17th, 2011 at 1:42 PM
Jo Anne and I have been relishing each new post about your amazing journey since we accidentally bumped into each other on the train in northern Italy. We both have become part of your growing group of regulars. Your journaling has been phenomenal and your website is a joy to use. Jo Anne started to journal when we were on a bike trip in the Netherlands, but quickly realized how difficult it becomes when you're tired, in a bad mood, wet, miserable or all the above :) I'm a little sad that your journey will soon end, but what a ride it's been, and I know you'll have more to come!!

Posted by Fritz Seefeldt on February 18th, 2011 at 3:31 PM
I love shitty first drafts! It was such a revelation to me that writing usually doesn't come out neatly written at once. I probably wouldn't - ever - get a single word written if I hadn't realized this...
Posted by Mia on April 11th, 2011 at 3:38 PM