Bird by Bird is, in my opinion, a poor book with an excellent chapter on First Drafts, namely “Terrible First Drafts.”* I quote below:
Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of ‘terrible’ first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the pace, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. [You need to write the first draft with the door closed–in secret]
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything–down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
For me, writing is the process of getting an idea out of my head and onto paper. This process of moving the idea from thought to paper allows me to work through the various parts of the idea in order to make sure I fully agree with my own thinking. Some ideas, before making it to paper, may not be fully “worked out” and turn out to be wrong or in need of significant alteration. The process of putting ideas down on paper is a significant aid in this process.
The ideas that make it on to the paper become more fully cemented, remembered and, most importantly, followed. This process helps weed out bad ideas. The ideas that sounded good in your mental conversations may not make the cut after going through the writing process.
Furthermore, the writing process improves the writing itself, so the terrible first drafts early in your career are going to be “less terrible” when you start writing first drafts after many years of refinement. The process of going from a terrible first draft to a much improved third draft builds on itself as you repeat the process. Each iterative process of writing a completed product helps you improve as a writer. Your first few attempts may even leave you with “somewhat terrible” final or published “drafts,” but over time, you will become better as a writer. However, if you never start the process because you dislike the early product, you will never improve.
Why Write Publicly?
So far I am arguing in favor of writing, but I want to go one step further. If you write for your own private consumption, I do not believe you are going through the true refinement part of the writing. Writing for public consumption elevates the level of refinement in the writing process that is not possible when you are only writing for private consumption. This may sound like something that is only applicable to some people whereas others can surely write with the same level of scrutiny and detail for themselves, but I do not believe so. Writing and refining with the intention of publishing something to the public is qualitatively different than writing something for private consumption.
I write for two reasons. First, I write because the iterative process of writing for public consumption helps clarify and cement the ideas I have floating around in my head. Speaking with others or writing down those same ideas for my own private consumption does not give me the outcome I desire.
Second, I write because I hope that how I present the ideas may aid others in their thinking process about similar (or entirely different) ideas. Although my ideas may be completely unoriginal, I have seen completely unoriginal ideas be presented in an original manner have a large impact on my life.
Matt Brice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Note: I edited the original from Bird by Bird to “terrible” from “shitty.”