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  • Writer's pictureSteph

The beauty of a messy first draft can help you live a better life

A desk with a laptop and several sketches spread out across it.

Practice makes perfect... I've found that with writing, like with many other things, it helps to create a habit and then stick to it, no matter how much it pains me. I need to put time in the diary, add an item to my to-do list. This ensures that I actually sit down to write.

Whether I am productive during my allotted writing time or not depends on other factors though. For the longest time I was writing and rewriting, going back over each sentence, each paragraph, as soon as I had written it. The more I read, the less I wanted to write. The more I edited, the less creative I felt. Until I really did not enjoy writing all that much.

What helped me get unstuck on this? As so often, it helped to lower the hurdle. Instead of sitting down to write the thing, the whole thing, and nothing but the perfect thing, I sat down to do some research or look over notes to see whether I could develop them into anything. No pressure to produce text at all. Next time, I sat down to sketch out a rough structure and maybe add some points I wanted to make in each section. The time after that I’d create a doc or a slide presentation and the first thing I’d do after naming it, was to slap a big, fat, red DRAFT on it. At the top of the document or across the slide template, somewhere I would see it.

With all the prep done, starting the writing was comparatively easy. Add the sections in, move the points from the notes. While doing that, a theme or narrative usually presented itself, my brain was making connections to things I’d read, images I’d seen, quotes I’d found poignant. Thanks to the high-level overview of the structure, it became evident which thoughts fit and where. Whenever I was tempted to go back and edit small things rather than move around sections, I’d remind myself (out loud, if necessary) that this was just a draft. Nobody ever needed to see version 1.0. That took a lot of the pressure off and allowed me to stay in writing mode.

Once I had a first draft, I left it alone for at least a day. When I came back to it, I’d read it once and fix any obvious issues (fluff, super bad style, repetitions, logical jumps, etc.). Then I’d share it. With colleagues, if I was writing for a joint project. With readers, if I was writing for my own purposes. That way, feedback felt like helpful input rather than criticism. Knowing that I had not invested maximum time and effort (yet), I was not too attached to the work. If someone told me I should include X and remove Y, I was not as reluctant as I would have been when sharing what I considered the finished product. So sharing early and iterating became second nature.

The draft - share - iterate approach served me well and allowed me to spend more time on the creative side of writing as well as the collaborative side of working. That alone was a great development and helped me manage any procrastination stemming from writing-related perfectionism (editing early and repeatedly was my form of procrastination in this case). Then I realised that this was actually an antidote to perfectionism more generally: building something incrementally by honouring the first draft and suspending the editing mode/critical eye until it's time to give it a polish.

Because I used drafting so successfully in writing, I started to apply this as a lens more widely. Whenever I started getting into my head about something, I asked myself wether I was writing (=living) or prematurely editing (=procrastinating). Making notes for a meeting so I would remember to ask my questions? Living. Spending hours and hours reading up on the subject of the meeting? Editing. Making sure that my favourite clothes were clean and ready for an event? Living. Agonising over whether I was wearing too much or too little jewellery with them? Editing. Looking for a healthy dinner option at the supermarket? Living. Trying to find the best cucumber of the lot? Editing.

This heuristic has helped me get more done, be more in the moment, and stop obsessing about details. Now, I don’t say there is no room for editing. If you buy a punnet of blueberries, you want to find and bin the dodgy ones when you get home. But spending an inordinate amount of time looking for the punnet with the fewest suspicious blueberries before committing to buy? That I consider a waste of time these days.

What is an approach that is useful in one area of your life that you could apply to another?


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