The Mark of a Truly Successful Writer is a Ton of Crappy First Drafts
Great writing begins with terrible first drafts.
The other day, I opened up my blog page and saw how many unpublished drafts I’d accrued in the past 24 months.
I had 764.
764 unfinished, unpublished piece-of-crap first drafts.
I’ve been writing for a while now. And one of the most undeniable facts about truly great writers is that they have a ton of crappy first drafts.
Anne Lamott has an entire chapter in Bird By Bird called “Shitty First Drafts”, and I highly recommend it. “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts,” she wrote. “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”
Perfectionism wants you to die alone, sad and unfulfilled and full of self-loathing. When you choose “perfectionism” over “just doing the work,” you ensure you remain in mediocrity. You have to start somewhere. You have to. And if you’ve ever taken the time to read how other famous best-selling authors did it, you’ll always see they had a lot of shitty first drafts before they got it right.
When I was 12, I wanted to learn how to play the drums. But I had this funny notion that as soon as I started taking professional lessons, my pure, uncut creativity would be lost. What if I have techniques or rhythms that only I can do? What if I lose that after my first lesson? So I spent months tinkering away on my drum set with no instruction so that I wouldn’t lose my pure creativity.
And it sounded horrible.
I was not a natural. I was very, very bad.
So I started taking lessons. I realized how bad I was, but I got a little better. I learned the framework, the structure, the rules of music — keeping in tempo, playing with other instruments, etc.
The mark of a truly successful person is having a ton of shitty first drafts. Because that’s how you get good second drafts, and hopefully, terrific third drafts.
“Champions aren’t made in the ring, they are merely recognized there.” -Joe Frazier, Heavyweight World Champion
The True Mark of a Champion is a Commitment to the Craft
Anyone who relies solely on luck, talent, or prestige doesn’t understand this lesson, and will suffer for it.
The best professionals were, at one point, pretty bad. Everything is difficult before it becomes easy.
True writers, however, don’t rely on luck. They don’t wait for inspiration to train or do the work. They just do it. By focusing on the process — doing the work, day in and day out — they become stronger, faster, more focused, and more skilled. A quote by prolific British writer Somerset Maugham comes to mind:
I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.
When you focus on the outcome — being perfect, getting views, looking good — you stunt your growth. You lose focus on the here-and-now. True writers focus on the process. They know champions aren’t made in the ring — they’re made in the practice arena, every day for months before.
The Boston Globe once studied a typical day for Olympic snowboarders. The athletes are “up at dawn, stretch, watch a video of the previous day, hit the slopes till lunch, go to class, do more conditioning, eat dinner, and then go to study hall for an hour and a half. At most, they get about an hour of ‘free time’ a day, but it’s usually used for homework.”
These athletes went on to become the best in the world at their craft. They became champions long before they start their first Olympic competition; they are champions because they practiced every day.
This motivation is what keeps them going through the tedious repetition, day in and day out. In Anders Ericcson’s famous book Peak: Secrets of the New Science of Expertise, Ericcson says,
At its core, practice is a lonely pursuit.
Commitment to the craft can be lonely, boring, and tedious. It often is.
But this is the difference between good and bad writers, snowboarders, CEO’s, singers, and jugglers — the good ones practice consistently. They focus on the process of getting better, every single day.
The bad ones don’t.
Ordinary people focus on the outcome. Extraordinary people focus on what they can control — the process.
“Every day, check these 4 boxes: Have I improved 1% on physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health?” -James Altucher
You Can’t Do Something Poorly 52 Times In a Row
Ray Bradbury, perhaps once of the best short story authors of all time, once said, “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”
If I told you you needed to do something 52 times before you got it right — would you do it?
Most people probably wouldn’t — too much work, too much failure to overcome. But the truth is, it probably wouldn’t take 52 times to do something before you got it right. But that’s the mindset you need to have because you never know when you’re going to start getting the hang of something. All you can do is start.
Mastery actually takes a lot less time than most people think. As Robert Greene wrote in Mastery: “The time that leads to mastery is dependent on the intensity of our focus.” You control how many times (and how intensely) you do something. Play guitar once a week, and it’ll be years before you get any good. But play it 3 times a day? You’ll see incredible results in a matter of weeks.
If you can get yourself to be someone who simply does the work, you’ll start to see huge results, very quickly. While everyone is focusing on marketing and promoting their mediocre work, you’ll be one making your craft into something extraordinary. “Be so good they can’t ignore you,” said comedian Steve Martin.
You can’t do something poorly 52 times in a row. You have to put in the repetition, which is something most people aren’t willing to do. As a best-selling author, Hal Elrod once wrote, “Repetition can be boring or tedious, which is why so few people ever master anything.”
Put in the work.
If your writing isn’t where you want it to be, you need to write more crappy first drafts.
Write a ton of them. Dozens of them. Hundreds. You can’t write 52 bad stories in a row. The truth is, most writers haven’t started that many articles…total! Perfectionism prevents growth, learning, and true craftsmanship.
Write more. Publish more. Crappy first drafts will turn to good second drafts, and terrific third drafts.
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