On Flow Writing and the Shitty First Draft
Shifting What Counts as Writing
People often ask “what counts as writing” when they begin developing a writing practice. This is an important question because under the surface lies the misconception that the only writing that really matters is the finished product—the perfect sentence, the paragraph that remains unaltered forevermore, or the idea that sticks the landing in the manuscript. In each of these examples, the only writing that seems to matter is our most polished ideas. However, the reality is that ugly writing, the writing we are afraid to show others without first “fixing,” is a necessary step towards writing productively at a regular pace.
Today I am encouraging you to develop a wealth of writing that is just for YOU. Writing for you is a safer space because your inner critic doesn’t have an audience to pander to yet. Developing a writing habit of this nature makes it easier to write habitually and to find comfort in the mundane because it is writing without any self-imposed pressure to be inspired.
So, what does this type of writing look like? I’ll offer two examples: flow writing and the shitty first draft.
Flow writing simply refers to the process of letting ideas freely flow through you and using a pen or the keyboard to record them. This type of writing a) can help us get started writing for the day or b) help us think up new possibilities. Robert Boice talks about these two next examples as “spontaneous” and “generative” writing, but I have condensed them while leaning on his explanations.
Many of us find that we don’t know where to start when we sit down to write. Our brains may feel too mired in the mud to begin. Boice recommends starting a writing session by reminding ourselves what it feels like to write. This writing doesn’t have a point, per se, nor is it required to be on any topic. You might simply talk about your breakfast or the film you just watched. The only goal is reconnecting your brain to the keyboard or notepad. This type of writing “counts” because it is something you can use to develop inertia into your writing session.
Photo by Mike Lewis HeadSmart Media on Unsplash
We could also use the same strategy to write more purposefully. Let’s say you have a conference paper to write, and you just haven’t landed on a narrow enough topic. You simply begin with the prompt “What am I most interested in writing about” and then you write for 10 minutes (or whatever time you set) without stopping. This writing “counts” because writing freely on topic can create new associations in your brain and take you down paths that hadn’t occurred to you yet.
Flow writing also includes list making, idea mapping on a white board or piece of paper, taking voice notes on a phone, or having a conversation with a friend about an idea we are working through. Even though this last one is obviously not writing in a technical sense, it fulfills the same purpose and can be especially useful for extroverts.
As Boice surmises, flow writing
helps you get unstuck by teaching ways of beginning before you’re ready, of beginning before the internal critics can set in, of generating ideas relevant to your topic, and of generating confidence (p. 69).
The Shitty First Draft
The shitty first draft is another type of writing that exists for the writer and not the reader. In a previous post, I talked about letting go of the idea that all our writing must be inspired, which frees us up to think through our ideas without judgement. When doing this type of writing, the audience is not our dissertation advisor, our editor, a journal’s readership, the conference participants, or anyone else we might imagine. In a shitty first draft, we are still writing for us—to get our ideas on the page, to work through a concept that we have almost grasped but not quite, to experiment, and to make connections.
The shitty first draft more closely resembles the final product than flow writing, but it still doesn’t bear the burden of clarity or even cleverness. This writing has holes that must be filled later, concepts that must be defined, examples that must be developed, bridging sentences and paragraph transitions that must be added. Those are tasks for another day because the main goal for this draft is to work through ideas.
I generally write a full shitty first draft before I do any line-item revision, major paragraph development, or any other editing. I have two main reasons for this. First, I need to allow my brain to think freely without focusing on details or the intended audience, as I have already discussed. Editing is often for other people’s clarity and not necessarily mine.
Second, there is a good chance I may need to cut an entire section or several paragraphs that don’t work for a more polished version of the paper. I often end up re-outlining and rearranging the shitty first draft, but it’s helpful to see the bigger picture of the whole paper before I do so. If I spend copious amounts of time refining a paragraph before I have written anything else, it will be painful to cut that paragraph later when I determine it doesn’t fit. I will have wasted time perfecting something that I don’t end up using. (I will address editing in another post because this is an equally important part of the process).
If a shitty draft is too crude for your delicate sensibilities, I’ll offer Anne Lamott’s description of the same general idea:
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later…If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means (p. 21-22).
In the end, I am encouraging you to let your writing flow, be shitty, or be childlike as an act of freedom—freedom from your ridiculously high standards for burgeoning ideas who just need a little time to grow without your red pen chasing them.