Writing Better First Drafts

Lesson 1: Do a Bad Job I came upon my first lesson in how to write a first draft in sixth grade. The experience had nothing to do with writing. My teacher, Sue Peterson (in spite of this example, one of the best teachers I ever had), handed out a blank sheet of paper, some colored pencils, and then spoke the fateful words: “Draw the best picture you possibly can.” This wasn’t hard for Larry, sitting next to me, whose top care in the world was pummeling nerds at kickball. Nor for Jimmy who was more concerned with peeling newly hardened pieces gum from the underside of his desk and flicking them at the Carter twins. No, Larry drew a kid on a motorcycle riding up a tree. Jimmy cranked out an orange-and-blue T-rex attacking a giant, red gummy bear, and they were both out the door at the lunch bell. For me, the task “best you possibly can” was obviously impossible. On so many levels. There are so many potential subjects for my drawing. The POSSIBILITIES are far too vast to narrow down in the last fifteen minutes of second period. A first draft, by definition, is not the best you POSSIBLY can do. Not to mention that it could take years to perfect the art of drawing—a lifetime, in fact, before one might have the perspective to reflect back on their legacy of colored-pencil artistry and state with certainty: “Yes, this one—this is the best I could ever possibly do.” I froze. Sadly, all the others eventually lay their BEST drawings on Mrs. Peterson’s desk, while I sauntered shamefully up and handed over a still-blank sheet. My excuse: “I couldn’t think of it.” That experience stuck with me. Haunted me. So, several years later, I developed a new motto (or rather trampled a popular cliché). Any task worth doing, was going to be worth doing badly. I made it my mantra—repeating it to myself over and again until I believed it. It eventually helped me smash my fear of perfect drafts and was my first step down a determined path to eradicate the creativity-killing impulse to self-edit. I’ve spread this philosophy to young, aspiring souls throughout my years as a grade-school teacher, in theatre, in film, in creative writing, and in advertising. It can work for you, too. Start giving yourself permission to—and getting very excited about—always doing your very worst work first. Illustration by: Dustin McDavid

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