Joshua Keel

Sh*tty First Drafts

April 19, 2020

Many moons ago, staring out a window, dreaming of becoming an artist, I imagined it would be easy. I thought that artists went into their studios or author huts or studies, and hours later, emerged victorious, having communed with the muse in an effortless flow.

Real art, like real life, is nothing like that. At least not most of the time. There are those rare occasions, sure, when the words come tumbling forth, and they are perfect. But the daily life of an artist is more like digging a ditch. It’s a dirty slog through self-doubt. You’re never sure if today, inexplicably, the words won’t come.

However, those who have turned pro, who have paid their dues through long struggle, know a secret: the secret of the shitty first draft. The pro has the faith to write a terrible, wretched, rotten first draft—one they wouldn’t show their own mother, for fear she would run away in horror.

The true artist understands that the shitty first draft is the way to excellence. The shitty first draft is the way to drop the self-censoring nonsense of the monkey mind, the voice that holds us back from creating not our best work, but at all.

Many artistic visions have been doomed from the start because their owners did not know that great art is produced from shit. The strength to sit down and crank out the most mind-numbing drivel is the strength art demands of us.

The artistic process consists of two distinct phases, although they intertwine and cannot be completely separated. The first is the drafting phase. This is where we create the shit that we will later mold into something beautiful. The second is the shaping phase, where we bring our keen sense of taste to bear and critically examine the work, improving it all the while.

These phases apply not just to writing and art, but many other tasks as well. When I write code, the first pass is a mess. It works, sure, but it isn’t pretty. The naming of variables, and the way the code is structured will change significantly as I refactor it into something I can show my teammates for review.

In entrepreneurial culture, there is the concept of a Minimum Viable Product—what’s the smallest effective unit of value we can deliver to customers? It’s a shitty first draft. We’re throwing something at the wall to see if it can stick. It will be refined, improved, rewritten, or even scrapped, depending on how customers respond to it.

Don’t let your inner censor dictate your ability to create. Remember that the first draft—of anything—is supposed to be shitty. If it’s not shitty, you may be spending too much time perfecting it as you go along. Perfection-seeking is a fun game for a while, but we soon see that it is the enemy of doing.

It is far more likely that you will give up on your efforts than that you will create a masterpiece, if you choose perfection as your master. Instead, play! Give yourself permission to create something truly awful. Then lovingly refine it into something worth talking about.

It all starts with the shitty first draft.