Updated: April 2022

I’m on a walk when inspiration strikes. I work the idea around in my head until I get home, sit down in front of my computer and type a few random words or a couple of garbled sentences.

What was so clear in my mind is now a hot mess on the page.

And that’s OK. In fact, it’s better than OK. It’s exactly as it should be.

First drafts are terrible by their very nature.

The American writer Anne Lamott devotes an entire chapter in Bird By Bird, her fantastic book on writing, to “shitty first drafts.”

Shitty first drafts are necessary, Lamott tells us. And she should know—she’s written nearly 20 books over her decades-long career.

These unsatisfying, often ugly and even incoherent drafts open the door to good second drafts and great third drafts. This is as true for copywriting, blogging and content creation as it is for a new project by a seasoned author.

One of the hard truths of writing is that it’s mostly editing. You need to spend at least as much time reworking, deleting, correcting and amending as you do wrestling those words onto the page in the first place.

As the writer Jane Smiley says, “Every first draft is perfect because all a first draft has to do is exist.”

Just… exist? That’s it?! I can handle that. And so can you.

Once your first draft is on the page, it’s real. And if it’s real, then you have a starting point. To get that first draft going, you need to have a system for capture. For me, it means having notebooks in every corner of my life because inspiration is a very fickle friend. So, whether it’s a notebook and pen, a file on your phone, or a doc on your laptop—create a dedicated space for your ideas.

Kate making space for her first draft via notebooks and a new document on her laptop

Don’t be precious with your first draft. Bullet points are fine; a point-form outline is divine. Just know that your carefully laid plans may fall apart in your final draft because the writing and editing process took you in a new direction. Let it.

After all, no one will ever see your shitty first draft.

Your first draft will serve a few purposes:

  • It will show gaps in your thinking
  • It will test your assumptions
  • It will show you if thoughts that seemed clear in your head are muddled on the page
  • It will make your idea at least partly tangible
  • It will give you something to work from
  • And most importantly, it will strengthen your ability to get raw ideas on the page.

I hear many of my fellow business owners and students lamenting that they’re “not a writer” or “not good at writing.”

Luckily, writing is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more toned it becomes. Eventually, working it out might even become fun. Eventually, you’ll strive less for perfection and more often for ‘done.’

Kate writing ideas for a first draft in a notebook

So what to do with your first draft when it’s done?

Once you’ve got it down, here are simple ways to edit your first draft:

  • Walk away. Ideally, for at least an entire day, so it becomes a little unfamiliar.
  • Read it aloud. If it’s hard to say, it will be hard to read. It’s probably not as crisp and clear as it needs to be.
  • Question everything. To every statement, ask, “who cares? Anne Handley, the godmother of copywriting, calls this the “so what?” method. Being your own editor is tough. You have to become disembodied, a coach and outer critic to your vulnerable internal creator.

To cap it all off, one final contradictory part of advice. While editing your draft over and over can make your writing go from mediocre to fabulous—editing it too much might get you stuck in a loop.

So get your first and second and maybe third draft done, then ship it. Do this a lot. Write often. Quantity will naturally improve the quality. Write your Instagram captions as mini-blog posts to connect with your audience. Write long and thoughtful comments in Facebook groups. Represent yourself online with words, understanding that it’s an opportunity to build your brand and exercise your writing muscle each time you write.

Then, when it comes time for the big stuff like biographies and blog posts, you’ll be ready.

Do you have a different way to motivate yourself to get started? Comment below with your ‘first draft’ strategy!

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