Study Guide

Bird by Bird Part 1, Chapter 3

By Anne Lamott

Part 1, Chapter 3

S***ty First Drafts

  • Yep, it's Anne Lamott dropping the S-bomb in the title there, not us. She says that there's something that may be even better news than the idea of short assignments: the idea of s***ty first drafts.
  • All good writers write them, and that's how they eventually get to good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
  • Lots of people think successful writers feel great each time they sit down to write. They effortlessly whip out something amazing, like Lin-Manuel Miranda doing a little improv.
  • Lamott says she knows a lot of great writers, and this is simply not true. She says not one of them writes amazing first drafts. Okay, maybe one does, but none of the other writers like her very much.
  • But except for that one writer, most authors don't know what they're doing until they've already done it. Writing a draft is super painful for most of them. The only way Lamott herself can get anything done is to write terrible first drafts.
  • Eventually, as you're writing a terrible draft, Lamott says, you may find something amazing that you couldn't have gotten to any other way, but you'll probably have to write five and a half lousy pages to get to one half page that is worth salvaging.
  • Lamott gives an example from her days of writing food reviews for California magazine before it went broke. (She's confident it didn't go under because of her reviews, by the way. Although some readers did object when she compared the food at some of the restaurants to the brains of ex-presidents. Go figure.)
  • Anyway, even after years of doing it, Lamott still panicked every time she tried to write a review, and things would be awful until she finally picked up that 1-inch picture frame. Then, she'd realize she just had to write a s***ty first draft of the first paragraph and not show it to anyone else.
  • After writing a truly terrible first draft, Lamott would knock off work for the day fearing that she might be run over by a car before she could edit, and everyone would read the terrible draft and assume her talent was gone.
  • But the day afterward, Lamott would go through that s***ty draft and edit, and the next draft always turned out fine. Sometimes it was even funny and helpful. She'd edit one more time, then send it in.
  • The next month, when Lamott had to do another review, exactly the same thing would happen all over again. Writing drafts is a bit like being in Groundhog Day.
  • Apparently, almost all good writing really does come from lousy first drafts. Lamott gives some good advice from a friend on writing drafts and then describes all the voices she imagines in her head, complaining about her early drafts.
  • Lamott says stopping these voices is at least half the battle when she's writing, but that's actually an improvement. It used to be 87 percent of what she did as a writer.
  • Lamott suggests an exercise for getting over these voices—an exercise she says she learned from a hypnotist.
  • The hypnotist's advice was to imagine all the voices of guilt or frustration or doubt as little mice. Then, you should imagine picking up each by the tail and dropping it in a mason jar. Imagine the jar has a volume button. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to all the voices. Then, turn it all the way down, and get back to your s***ty first draft.
  • There you have it, folks: genuine advice from a published writer. Even if Stuart Little might object.