On Writing: Anne Lamott

laptop and notebook

One of the things that most frequently causes writers to feel stuck or frustrated is trying to write and edit at the same time. These are two very different cognitive activities, and examining your last three sentences for flaws is a sure way to block the creative impulse that might lead to the next sentence.

The answer, of course, is to write what Anne Lamott calls “a shitty first draft” in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. . . . For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

As Lamott describes it, letting yourself write “a self-indulgent and boring beginning” or a paragaph that is way too long for the total length of the essay frees you from the critical voices sitting on your shoulder:

I’d start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible. . . . But because by then I had been writing for so long, I would eventually let myself trust the process — sort of, more or less.

Once you have something — anything — down on the page, it’s easier to return to it for a second draft. But the pressure of deadlines and the ease of revision on the computer means that many writers, particularly students, are not fully comfortable with writing essays in multiple, distinct drafts.

Over the years, as a writer and a teacher of writing, I’ve found that deliberately altering the appearance or form of your writing can make it easier to produce a “shitty first draft,” especially when you’re feeling stuck. Here are some of my favorite strategies:

  • if you usually write on the computer, write a draft in longhand (or vice versa);
  • write a longhand draft in crayon or Sharpie marker, letting your handwriting be as big and playful as possible;
  • if you write a draft on the computer, change the font to one that you don’t typically use (I change font between each draft so that the printout doesn’t look finished before the writing is);
  • write each paragraph on a separate page, without worrying about how exactly it will connect with the ones before or after it;
  • write as quickly as possible, inserting notes in brackets for anything you don’t yet know how to write;
  • write a fake introduction, one that’s deliberately bad, just to build some momentum and get to the body of the paper.

What are your favorite strategies for writing first drafts? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user

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