I know, I know: You’re a perfectionist. You research compulsively. You mind map. You outline. And you spend countless hours writing, rewriting and editing clean first drafts of your work.
It’s got to stop. At least the perfect first drafts.
As a copywriter who juggles multiple projects—and likely blogs, self-markets, pursues creative work and, you know, has a life—give yourself a break: let go and write an ugly first draft.
Writing and editing are separate tasks
Don’t get me wrong. Refining, polishing and fine-tuning are crucial to the copywriting process. “Rewriting is the essence of writing well,” notes William Zinsser in his classic guide to writing, On Writing Well. “It’s where the game is won or lost.”
But you need to write before you can rewrite.
And writing and editing are different tasks. They “use different parts of your brain,” says writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant, “…trying to edit while you write is like trying to wash the dishes while you’re still eating dinner. It really doesn’t work.”
It takes self-discipline to be imperfect
Maybe you think you’re showing discipline by twisting and tormenting words on your first go-’round. I disagree.
My first drafts almost always require massive surgery to meet word-count. After years of torturing my first efforts, I now consider clean first drafts self-indulgent.
True grit lies in pushing forward with a rough draft—and trusting yourself to refine it later.
5 benefits of a dirty first draft
If they’ve become part of your routine, polished first drafts are a tough habit to break. It’s kind of like having poison ivy—and forcing your self not to scratch. You need to draw on pure strength of will to not tinker with words as they pour out.
But once you silence your internal editor and train yourself to just write, you’ll realize a number of benefits.
Churning out a dirty first draft helps you:
- Fight Resistance. In his book, The War of Art—a must-read for all writers—Steven Pressfield identifies Resistance as the writer’s enemy. A palpable, negative force, Resistance manifests in inertia, procrastination and busy work. Forcing yourself to produce an imperfect first draft proves a great antidote to Resistance.
- Abolish writers’ block. If you’ve ever sweated in front of a blank screen, you know the hardest part about writing is making a start. You’ll be surprised at the freedom you feel when you give yourself permission to regurgitate a sketchy, incomplete iteration of your work. Whatever gripped you now lets go. You’re loosed to write—not write well, but write.
- Nip scope creep. If you’re a compulsive researcher like me, by the time you sit down to draft, you probably have far too much material. A rudimentary first draft tells you where you stand with research and structure of your project. It helps you identify which tools and frames serve your work—and which don’t. And it lets you kill darlings now before you’ve grown inordinately fond of them.
- Polish faster. A rough first draft gives you a quick overview and lets you make massive cuts—paragraphs, multiple bullet points, quotes—at the starting gate. This gives you much less material to polish and refine later. It allows you to do the fine-tuning that separates a loose group of clever ideas into a piece of incisive content.
- Boost self-confidence. One I’ve gotten a rough draft out of my system, I feel a burden lift. I exhale with relief and a sense of confidence: I now know I’ll be able to revise subsequent drafts and polish copy. I’ll meet deadlines, please my clients, get paid, not end up a bag lady, etc. Fast, funky first draft = reprieve for the day.
The zen of “good enough” first drafts
As a perfectionist, you know you can tinker with your work forever and never feel completely satisfied. So go ahead and “have the feeling—but don’t act on it,” as shrinks advise.
Because the more readily you sit with the uncertainty a “good enough” first draft, the more likely you are to end up with damn good finished copy.