The Courage to Write Badly

Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.

– Joshua Wolf Shenk

It’s true and I have battled with other people over it many times. Imagine what you have to write is a business letter. That’s easier to write than poetry or fiction, right? Not necessarily; not if you get in your own way.

Is it going to be five sentences in one paragraph or twenty sentences in five paragraphs? You don’t know until you get something on the page. And the last thing you want to do is stop at the end of the first sentence and start correcting stuff. Just keep going, get it all out there, everything you need to say. Then go back and start fixing.

Otherwise, what you have is one slightly improved sentence and some unknown number that aren’t written at all. But the first sentence isn’t good yet, because you were using most of your brain to try to remember everything else you were going to write, and all of that unwritten stuff is rapidly fading into oblivion.

At least that’s how it is for me. My brain is good at one task at a time. It’s not good at editing while I’m trying to write.

OK, that’s a good first draft blog post. And it’s going to live or die that way because essentially what I’ve done is restate and paraphrase what Shenk said. Oh well.