Shitty First Prewrite

I’d previously come along Lamont’s “Shitty First Drafts,” in my English 325 class last semester. To be honest, I didn’t pay it much attention. I found it interesting, and I got the main idea that writers can have really terrible first drafts.

Then, I realized that we were reading Shitty First Drafts again. Professor Mantis (or do you like to be called Shelley? I’m not sure) asked us if we’d previously read Shitty First Drafts. I raised my hand, and enthusiastically, she asked me what I thought of it. My response was pretty lackluster, summing up to saying “Eh, it was alright.”

Mantis’s response was quite different than mine. She said how much that she enjoyed the essay, even saying that it changed her life. It got me thinking, and I decided to really pay attention this time.

As I re-read the essay, I realized what I missed the first time through. Lamont’s essay is a piece of undeniable comfort to anyone who has written anything.I tend to imagine authors as grandiose figures who sit down after a cup of tea and a scone to write fifty perfect pages. I imagine these people having skills, techniques, and tricks far superior to my own. This isn’t the case.

Step 1: Try to write but fail

You can see in the details of Lamont’s essay the stress-induced panic that is writing. She has the initial, irrational fear that she won’t be able to write a review, even though she’s probably written half a dozen. She has the typing, writing,  crossing-out  ex’ing out of unnecessary words, and inability to write a good sentence. I’ve spent literally twenty minutes trying to make a sentence sound acceptable only to realize that I’m not making any progress.

Step 2: Procrastinate

She then follows this up with the procrastination. My Twitter checkins is her making phone calls, eating, or studying her teeth in the mirror. It’s so true that after not being able to write anything, all I want to do is find any possible way to avoid writing. In this stage, I’ll go to any length to avoid writing because, even though I’ve written over fifty essays in my life, I somehow believe.

Step 3: Your inner Intervention

There comes a point in my procrastination when I really realize “Michael, wait, you HAVE to write this essay. Like, seriously, you have to do this.” It’s a step that can barely be seen on the outside, and Lamont nails it perfectly with sitting in a chair, sighing for ten minutes. Okay, maybe ten minutes is a little overdramatic, but I’ve definitely spent a few minutes giving myself a mental pep talk. My rational starts kicking in and trying to help me. “Michael, you’re not making any progress. Just write something down. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Try your best, but just write something down.”

Step 4: Write the Shitty First Draft

And then, like Lamont says, it follows. Although I occasionally write a good draft, most of my first drafts are shitty. They’re uncomfortably wordy, unclear, too long (or short), and barely understandable. But I keep writing because I know that there’s no other option. Even if I can’t find the right word, I have to keep going because I’ll never make the essay better if I don’t write the first draft.

So I go through the steps and arrive at the first draft, which inadvertently turns into a final, better piece of work. Thinking about this process makes me wonder why I go through this on every difficult writing assignment. Maybe it simply is because I get too scared to write, but maybe there’s a logical explanation for the irrational. Maybe, even when we’re not procrastinating, we need some type of push to get our ideas on the table. Maybe it takes until I’ve wasted so much time that I feel the need to create something. I guess I’ll never know, but for whatever reason, it always seems to work out. So I guess I shouldn’t complain, right?

3 thoughts to “Shitty First Prewrite”

  1. Michael!

    I love this post because I had almost the exact same reaction when we were presented with “Shitty First Drafts” in class. I read it for the first time in highschool, and didn’t think much more of it than you. But upon reading it this time with much more attention to the detail and thought Lamott put into structuring it, I realized that it’s kind of actually a profound piece of writing… This is a writing strategy that we (at least most of us) are never explicitly taught when we are first learning to construct longer pieces of writing, yet surreptitiously expected to understand. If only I had paid more attention the first time I read it.

    Great post!

  2. The format of this is great, and you do a wonderful job of breaking down the process that Lamott makes so up-to-interpretation for her readers. Step-by-step (these steps precisely) we will all end up with that shitty first draft. You’re right, Lamott does lay it out, just not in so much detail.

    Furthermore, I think a lot of the challenge that comes with this first read is that Lamott’s anecdote, if you will, isn’t found until the middle of her piece. Her experience with food criticism is one I think we can all relate to. But at least she got to eat!

  3. Michael,

    This entire post resonated with me completely. I loved how you broke down the four steps like an easy to follow plan (which is funny to follow because procrastination is actually a step).

    Much like you, I always look back at my writing process and rack my brain for answers to why writing the draft had to be so hard, it’s not like I’m new to it, ya know? I like you’re idea that even when we aren’t procrastinating that we need a push. I think that’s a big thing as a writer, we have to ask ourselves “why are we writing in the first place?” Even though we might not know the answer exactly, that question is enough of a push to get us started.

    -Procrastinators united!

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