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Making Peace with the First Draft

Picture a steaming pile of rotting meat. Now dump lard on it. Now set the whole thing on fire.

Let the fire go out and then wait until flies start settling. When the first maggots appear, throw a bunch of rotten cheese on top of it.

Now we’re starting to approach how I feel about the first draft of anything I write.

Between October 20–when I found out about my book deal–and today, I’ve written first drafts of four additional chapters.

Four piles. Piles that will inevitably (fingers crossed) become lovely, literary, provocative, and hilarious, but not without help and not without revision.

The point is, I made the mess, horror that it is. Now I get to clean it up, which is the part I really enjoy. Without the nasty, raw material, there’s nothing to refine and sculpt.

Ernest Hemingway said “The first draft of anything is always sh*t.”

Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird has lengthy passages devoted to loving descriptions of just how bad she considers her first drafts.

Philip Roth has said that he barely even considers his early work on a project a draft. He simply “collects pages, then tries to see if any of them go together.”

The point?

If you’re a writer, just get your fingers moving, as often as you can.

If you want to write, just write. It can be pretty later.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tim Huntley January 10, 2012, 12:35 pm

    I can’t tell you how happy I am when I make that “steaming pile of rotting meat.” At that point I have something to actually work with – it is real vs. a bunch of yellow sticky notes or scribbles on a pad.


  • Nikki Groom January 11, 2012, 7:18 am

    Needed to hear this – thanks, Josh!

    Great post.

  • Todd January 11, 2012, 7:35 am

    I feel the same with my blog posts. Funny part is, I let ’em go with only grammatical editing. LOL

    • Josh Hanagarne January 11, 2012, 12:43 pm

      I don’t know if I’ve ever done a second draft of a blog post. You poor readers get my at-typing-speed-in-the-order-I-think-the-words-writing!

  • Casey B January 11, 2012, 10:45 am

    I wish I could say the edits were my favorite part. It’s definitely not. But I will strive toward your example.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 11, 2012, 12:43 pm

      I only enjoy it because that’s when I can tell how much potential something has.

  • Pauline January 12, 2012, 11:47 am

    Heartfelt agreement. The first draft is so painful to live through, but the happiness of actually having the pile is terrific! I love editing.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 12, 2012, 12:50 pm

      Pauline, what do you write?

      • Pauline January 13, 2012, 2:05 pm

        Josh, I don’t write much of anything these days, but when I returned to college in my 50’s I wrote a lot for classes. My professors often said I should consider publishing some of the essays. But then, they were comparing my writing with that of 20 year old kids . . . and I don’t know what that says about the writing instruction those kids had.

  • Richard January 13, 2012, 1:28 pm

    Josh, Great stuff! The hardest part for me is simply the starting part. Keep using the momentum. I am looking forward to seeing the phoenix that rises from that first pile you created.