The Rotten First Draft

“Everyone writes a sh**y first draft.”
–Anne Lamott

I’ve got a presentation that I had been putting off doing any work on because I was waiting for further inputs from my intended audiences (two distinct groups–a topic I’ll cover in a later entry). Not hearing anything recently, I decided to go forth and start writing what want to say. However, after spending an hour creating said presentation, I was horrified to realize how many problems there were with it. I had done it: as writing practitioner Anne Lamott so elegantly put it, I had written a sh**y first draft. Fortunately, there is magic in the word “first.”

Moving Forward From the Rotten First Draft

Missing or chaotic content

The important thing for me in writing a first draft–paper, presentation, or other product–is to get the content out of my head and into “physical” form in the real world. I realized that a) there were pieces missing, and b) the content that was there was not quite in a useful order yet. As a result, I found more to add and more slide arranging to do.

Too many thoughts

Another problem cropped up when I realized how much text was on each slide, a habit that used to make me crazy when I worked at NASA. That required adding slides, which increased the total slide count, but increased the amount of free space and reduced the clutter on each individual slide.

Not enough pictures

As a writer, I often face the painful realization that people attending presentations would rather see pretty pictures than read words on the screen. As a result, bit by bit, the words are migrating to the notes, where I can speak them rather than have people stare at them. On the plus side, once the audience looks at the picture, they’re more likely to listen to me rather than take notes about what’s on the screen.

Too many words

Again, first drafts are meant to get the thoughts out of your head. That doesn’t mean you’ll use the most elegant or concise phrasing. Related to this problem is that bullets on the slide can become much longer than necessary, adding clutter to the screen. I’m in the “trimming” phase now, and will have more to do between now and when I actually present it.

Writing for the Ears vs. Writing for the Eyes

After I make my presentation more aesthetically pleasing on the screen, I will still need to rehearse giving the actual speech that goes with it. I’m aware that I tend to write for the eyes rather than the ears, meaning someone who’s reading quietly. It’s something else to write for the ears, meaning putting words in an order that is easy to say and that flows well when spoken aloud. These types of writing are not always the same. Likewise, words written to be spoken aloud don’t always read easily on their own. Don’t believe me? Try seeing or listening to a Shakespearean play vs. reading one.

Bottom Line: Embrace the First Draft, But Not Too Tightly

First drafts are written in the moment of inspiration. There’s nothing wrong with that. They often convey the emotion and excitement of what motivates you to write your product in the first place. That doesn’t mean they’re as good as they could be. The revision phase allows you to put things on the page (or slide) more concisely, neatly, and artfully. The good news with the first draft is that you’ve started. Now comes the next-most important part: making certain that the final product comes out as well as it could be.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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