Writing a First Draft

One of my favorite things to write in any job is a first draft. The blank piece of paper or the blank screen with the flashing cursor seems to taunt some people. If you’re someone who dreads writing the first draft of anything, let your happy literary explorer take this opportunity to share his insights.

Thinking About First Drafts

Writing as travel

For me, writing a first draft is akin to traveling or exploring new places, which I love doing. If I’ve never been to [X location], I’ll gather my first impressions of the place and write them down in my journal. If I choose to turn my travel writing into something more professional, like a blog, there will always be a need (and time) for subsequent drafts, but I like to write down my thoughts while my impressions are fresh.

In the case of new or unfamiliar content, sometimes a customer will tell me to look up all I can on X topic and then write an article. Or a customer drags me into a room, writes a bunch of stuff on a white board while explaining it, and then asks, “Can you write a white paper on that?” Sometimes I’m just given a topic or directive and told to “Go write a letter about X.” So when I sit down in front of the computer, I’m piecing together my first impressions of what I know about a topic and writing them down.

Throwing stuff against the wall, seeing what sticks

Someone came up with the analogy of “throwing stuff [paint? mud? spaghetti?] against the wall and seeing what sticks” as a way to describe a first draft. Imagine yourself literally hurling a bucket of something against a wall. Some of it will splatter back on the floor or on you. Some will stick to the wall. In this analogy, whatever “sticks” is what might be considered useful.

Sometimes a customer will want to get a draft written just to show signs of progress or to get a project started. As I mentioned recently, first drafts can be the opening round of a rousing game of “bring me a rock,” where a customer really isn’t certain what s/he wants until you present them with something they know they don’t want. I do not consider those exercises wasted because often the things I write will spawn some other thought in the customer’s mind, and they’ll point me in a new direction to modify the content accordingly.


I like writing first drafts because I like the idea of being able to shape a topic or discussion–set the terms of a debate, so to speak. I suppose I’m a secondhand philosopher or politician in a way because I like being able to write words that will influence others. I’m just not the one who wants to get up on a stage and say them.

“I don’t know what to say!”

A lot of the fear of not knowing what to say can be handled by asking yourself (or your customer) the three big questions:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What is the situation in which they will be receiving the information I’m writing?
  • How do I want them to respond after reading it?

Knowing those three things, you have a good starting point. The rest is just details.

Remember that it’s a first draft

Author Anne Lamott once was quoted as saying that “Everyone writes a s—-y first draft.” Hemingway is known to have said something similar as well. Unless you’re giving a live speech or under a great deal of deadline pressure, your first draft will not be your final draft, so you will have time to go back and correct, fix, adjust, or rewrite it. The important part about a first draft is to get something written. You need not fear rejection of a first draft because everyone’s first draft is going to be rejected, or at least corrected somehow.

You can do this!

I have encountered individuals who are not confident about their writing ability or their ability to “get things right.” Nonsense! Your first impressions of a topic or idea are as valid as anyone else’s. Again, you’re writing your first impressions, which will always be messy, incomplete, and in need of refinement. The important thing, again, is to just start writing–your words, no one else’s. They’re your first impressions. Use them!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Writing a First Draft

  1. Pingback: Positive Self-Talk in the Workplace | Heroic Technical Writing: Advice and Insights on the Business of Technical Communication

  2. Pingback: Writing a First Draft — Heroic Technical Writing: Advice and Insights on the Business of Technical Communication | timwburke

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