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The First Draft Of Anything Is Shit


“Dad, tell me how to write this,” my daughter [high school senior] often says to me.

“What are you trying to say?” I ask her.

She tells me.

I say, “Write that.”

“But that doesn’t sound like I wrote it.”

That’s a problem a lot of us have. We need our writing to sound like, well, writing.

The prose must sound prosy to be taken seriously. A conversational approach to the written word will never do. “Talk on the page” is not writing. We need grander words in our work! More phrases (and parenthetical remarks) in our reports! We must be taken seriously!


What I advise my daughter is to: (1) Say what you mean and (2) use plain English.

And if you don’t know what you mean, free-write.

Free-writing is the act of just flowing. It’s the improvisational jazz of literature. Just talk on the page and tell me everything you know, think you know, would like to know, and have heard about your subject. Get it all out. Everything. The rule, the only rule, is to keep your fingers moving. Get as much stuff on the page as you can.

Most of it is going to be crap. The real writing comes from digging through all that crap and finding the diamond. Find enough diamonds and polish them up, and you’ll probably have a nice essay or report at the end of it all.


I wrote these personal Rules of Writing on writing about 10 years ago. I’ve been carrying them around in my head ever since:

  1. Writing is rewriting;
  2. Try to keep out the stuff that readers tend to skip;
  3. Read what you’ve written out load. If you don’t say, “Blech!” you’ve probably done a good job. (Edit what you’ve written until you stop saying “Blech” — see Rule #1);
  4. Don’t try to explain everything. As in music, the notes you don’t play are as important as the notes you do play;
  5. Show, don’t tell;
  6. Details. Details. Details. But not so many as to violate Rule #2;
  7. Don’t confuse facts with Truth;
  8. Readers want to come away knowing the author a little better;
  9. Readers want to come away knowing themselves a little better;
  10. Write to a specific audience;
  11. The best audience is you;
  12. If you want to write, write!

Oh. And writers should read too. I just didn’t want to make a 13th rule — 13 being such a rude number.


In the interest of transparency, it was Ernest Hemingway that said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”


There’s Always Linking & Stealing


Thanks David.

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