Sunday, October 21, 2012

Writing Essays, or On the Power of the Shitty First Draft

Hi everyone! The topic I'm covering for this month's skill-share is essay writing. Since this is a pretty big topic to discuss in one post, I'm thinking more specifically I'll talk about getting to the actual writing part of the process.

Writing essays is hard. I'm sure that anyone who's tried writing essays has found themselves sitting in front of a blank document, cursor blinking accusingly as the minutes pass and YouTube gets more and more appealing. I still do this, and I've written a lot of essays in my time. (And watched a good number of depressingly procrastinatory YouTube videos).

So what helps make writing essays less stressful? Less intimidatingly, overwhelmingly blank page-y? Well, it turns out that NaNoWriMo has gotten something right in their concept of the "shitty first draft" - once you get *something* on the page, even if it's god-awful, you can then improve it. It's difficult to edit thin air into an assignment.

There's a lot of advice out there for writing essays, and countless writing guides will tell you that outlining helps in the writing process. This is certainly true for some people, but I know others who swear by simply sitting down to write whatever comes out of their brains, and then tackling that mass of roiling words, attempting to wrangle the glob into something intelligible. In this way, I think that it's useful for everyone to approach writing an essay as something that doesn't have to be perfect when you start.

Whether you're writing a detailed outline or starting from scratch, the first draft should be bad. I mean, if it's got some good ideas in it, that's fine. But your first draft isn't the place for using the backspace key excessively - you should be putting words on the page, not taking them off of it! Instead of searching for the perfect word, use the one that comes to mind first. Often, once you've tried to turn off the voice in your head questioning your choice, you'll find that the first word that comes to mind *is* the right one. And if it isn't, so what? You can go back and change it, but at least the basic concept will be there to work with.

So I offer this piece of advice: no matter how solidified your ideas are, when you start writing, do it as a  very tentative part of the process. Don't edit as you go, don't overthink it, and don't expect to be able to hand it in the next day (unless you're an insanely quick and skillful editor!).

I found that my essay writing skills were very much improved by the practice of writing for NaNoWriMo, even though the things I was writing for that novel had absolutely nothing to do with my schoolwork. The practice of putting down words - any words that could possibly work - to page helped immensely in shutting off the voice inside my head that criticized as I wrote.

Here's to the shitty first draft! The giver of a point from which to start, the shabby placeholder, and the reassuring piece of work to say "yes, I can get something done" when you're doubting your abilities and your deadline is rapidly approaching. Whether you outline like Tolkien, or fly by the seat of your writerly pants, expect your first draft to be just that - the first of several.


  1. Yay NaNoWriMo and writing tips from Cat!

    I struggle with two things when it comes to writing:

    1) Organizing my thoughts - I'm not sure if this is from keeping a journal for so many years or what, but I tend to use writing as a means to get my thoughts organized in my own mind, which results in a finished product that is a complete jumble.

    2) Occasional extreme conciseness - I blame this on GE 300, but so often I find it really hard to actually delve into a topic instead of just trying to explain it as quickly and simply as possible. Not necessarily a bad thing, but..

    Any advice? ;)

  2. Your article is very liberating - I admit that I am very intimidated by the blank page and have put off working on a story for a long time. I have been re-exploring the story through some of the artwork I am making, and your post couldn't have come at a better time.

    After having worked again in clay this week, I can see exactly what you mean by "It's difficult to edit thin air into an assignment". With clay, you have to start with something, even if it is just a misshapen blob. At that state, it is actually what the blob isn't than what it is that drives the process forward. By recognizing what it lacks, it can be added to, reshaped, pared away, manipulated, and tweaked into the desired final result. I wouldn't have recognized this parallel if it were not for your post.

    Thank you Cat for your insights and I hope to put them to good use this month!