Monica Petersen: The Art in the “Shitty first draft”

SFDTaken from Anne Lamott’s essay in her book Bird by Bird, the “shitty first draft,” or SFD, tries to make the most difficult step in writing easier. The concept is simple: write everything you can all at once and get it on the page. In her words, “almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper” (25). Don’t filter yourself, or you will never get past the first paragraph. I have always hated writing my first draft out of fear of that it will be worse than a 5-year-old’s first book report. Even Lamott recognizes her fear that if something were to happen to her, she would never have the chance to go back and fix her SFD.

The SFD is important to me because it transformed the way I write. My first draft is supposed to be bad, so it’s perfectly OK if it is. The worse the draft is, the better actually because it means I have more to work with to make it perfect. After chucking everything onto the page, the ideas are there, and only need tweaking (or maybe entire paragraph upheaval) to get it where I want the work to be. The point is the SFD provides a starting place when you didn’t have one before.

After the SFD, I spend the rest of my writing time editing it, stripping the work to its barest bones, and building it back up again. I have a tendency to overwrite (and by tendency I mean 1000 words over the limit on a paper). My SFD usually contains at least double the words allowed and is plagued by repetition. My writing process consists of paring that overwriting down day after day to get it under the limit—condensing sentences, and clarifying ideas.

The same thing goes for my fiction pieces and this post. I can write pages of text, giving me paragraphs to work with. Because of all the prose I have, I can cut down the bad, horrible, and not-so-good stuff and allow the best float to the top. I can take out an entire scene to a story, or rework a character’s personality when I realize I want her to be angry with the world instead of happy to be alive. The SFD provides a canvas and base to build upon and create a better piece.

Have you ever used an SFD before? What other significant tools have you used to make your writing process easier?

9 thoughts on “Monica Petersen: The Art in the “Shitty first draft”

  • November 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Monica, this post was uplifting and so helpful. I have a 17 page pager that I have to write – and it eases my anxiety to consider just getting it all written down! I cant wait to create my own SFD.

  • November 4, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Thanks Monica! I always feel like my first draft has to be perfect. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that it’s supposed to be bad.

  • November 4, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Monica, thank you for this post! I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one who writes every miniscule detail that pops up into my head! I feel like I’ve written several SFDs. Recently, however, I find myself editing as I’m writing, which is nervewracking, because it makes me feel as though everything I’m writing is terrible and that thought eats at me for the rest of the time. Your advice reminds me of the time when a friend of mine was trying to give me tips on writing college personal statements. He said that I should just start writing my first draft from start to finish, wait a week, realize how awful it is, and start over completely. I never actually did that, though!

  • February 23, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    I think SFD is a wonderful name for whatever it is that I put down on paper before giving it a critical eye. Usually I’m in the piece too much or it’s too full of what I feel is obvious emotion. But there is relief in knowing that I’m not in this alone and that SFDs exist for many writers!

  • October 19, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    I don’t really feel like I’m familiar with first drafts, horrible or otherwise, because most of the time I don’t have a first draft at all. When I write I might start the intro, then if I see something that I think would make a good concluding sentence I’ll move to the conclusion, then maybe I’ll list out all the topic headings for paragraphs, go back to the intro and change it around so these fit, start the first paragraph, and halfway through that go back and spend another hour or more on the intro until it’s so airtight it carries through to the final draft. By the time I get done with the “first draft” most of the paragraphs have been through so many revisions it’s impossible to count them. This sounds like madness, but working through a linear Draft 1, Draft 2, Draft 3 drives me crazy. I’d love to find someone else who does this!

  • October 19, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    I try to go the SFD route, to get everything down on paper, regardless if it’s good or not, then worry about fixing it later. However, I always end up criticizing myself as I write and find myself editing and revising along the way.

  • October 4, 2017 at 6:10 pm

    I’ve never necessarily tried writing SFD-form because I am (and you mention that you were too) afraid of them. Every sentence has to be perfect before moving on to the next one, in my head. I think this is a result of being taught in public school that every paragraph needs to be structured a certain, coded way. Or I’m painfully anal. Either way, I’ve been applying this concept to my recent essays, and it’s been helpful. I’m curious about the book you noted and I’m glad I ran into this post.

  • October 6, 2017 at 11:55 am

    SFD are wonderful! It gives writers permission to be messy and scattered (much like how a writers brain works anyway). I am currently working on a novel and I spent a long time letting it mold in my head; allowing it to progress. I finally took a deep breath and wrote some of it out. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be, but it also took a very different turn from what I had imagined; a better turn. SFD are the doorways between a writers mind and a writers work. I love it.

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