Some of the best advice I ever received to be a more productive writer is to allow myself to write beginner’s drafts. Virtually, every book on writing I have read talks about the importance of being willing to write a beginner draft; a rough-all-over-the-place messy draft that no one will see but you, as a way to begin writing and get your writing juices flowing, ideas percolating, and actual words down on page. What all of these authors know firsthand from their own writing experience and witnessing other writers write is how challenging and even painful writing the first draft can be. They also know that a major reason writers do not let themselves write beginner drafts is because they believe other writers do not need to write them. Anne Lamott (1994) in her book Bird by Bird aptly described the myths people often believe about successful authors and the contrast of what the writing experience is really like for them:
- People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their neck a few times to get all of the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies on the snow. We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even for those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. (p. 21-22)
It is very common for graduate students to make the same erroneous comparison to academics and researchers who have published books and articles in their research area. They look at published research and forget that they are reading the final, revised and edited version. The published work has usually been through peer review or careful developmental editing by a publisher. There were certainly previous and much messier drafts with errors, holes in logic, omissions, and big messes. What you read in print is the polished end product. If you keep comparing your efforts to this product, you are bound to feel inadequate.
Certainly, there are academics who are very prolific writers who are able to write a literature review in a weekend or churn out pages of beautiful prose overnight. But there is one very significant difference between those academics and you: experience. They have simply engaged in more academic writing than you and become proficient at writing over time. You, however, are unlikely to have that kind of experience at this juncture in your life. This fact may not be your preference but I encourage you to avoid demanding that you must be able to write at the same level as more experienced academics. If you are committed to writing well, you will improve with continued practice and experience but that takes time. I encourage you to practice allowing yourself time to write rough, messy, beginner drafts. Bolker (1999) encouraged students to think of beginner drafts as the opportunity to make a mess so you have something to clean up, improve over time, and eventually turn into a piece of writing you feel good about.
Beginner drafts are about letting yourself write with abandon, letting go of concerns about spelling, grammar, word choice, sentence structure, meaning, style, organization, or your argument. The main goal of writing at this stage is to just keep writing and get something down on paper (Bolker, 1989). Stephen King (2002), in his book On Writing, described the first draft as the draft you write with the office door closed. It is the draft you write without consideration of your audience and only after you have something drafted, is it appropriate to crack the door open and begin to consider your audience as you revise and improve your draft. Graduate students often write their first draft as if their advisor or committee is sitting there in the room reading what they are writing. They would do well to close the office door when they write early drafts of their dissertation and let go of concerns about what their advisor or committee would think of their work at this stage.
There are two objective behaviors you can use to help you make the shift to writing beginner drafts. One, pick a narrow, specific writing goal that is something you can reasonably accomplish in a day. A narrow writing goal can make it easier to let go of high standards for a first draft if you know you will be drafting just one small part of your dissertation. Second, plan time in your timeline and/or action plan to write beginner drafts. Many of my clients actually plan to write crappy, shitty, beginner, baby or rough, rough drafts of specific subsections of their dissertation in their timeline or action plans. Then at some later date (even the next day), they plan time to revise the draft. Knowing that they have planned time to revise in the future helps them let go and just write a beginner draft in the present. I know writing beginner drafts may feel uncomfortable and awkward but it is important if you want to become a more productive writer. Keep practicing letting go of excessive standards for your writing and give yourself the gift of seeing how freeing it can be to write a beginner draft and revise it later. You may find that writing this way becomes second nature and that consequently you get a lot more writing done.
Bolker. J. (1998). Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. NY: Henry Holt.
King, S. (2002). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. NY: Pocket Books.
Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by Bird. NY: Anchor Books
This article was written by Alison Miller, PhD, owner of The Dissertation Coach, a business dedicated to helping doctoral and master’s students successfully earn their graduate degrees.
Copyright August 2007 by Alison Miller, Ph.D., The Dissertation Coach