Crappy First Drafts Matter

Someone once asked Ansel Adams what he considered to be the most important tool for a professional photographer.

His response? “A trash can.

Likewise, in On Writing, Stephen King describes one of the most important lessons he learned early on in his career:

“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)...I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this note: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

That’s how any good art comes about. You collect outpourings; jottings on receipts, drawings on notebooks, words in a dictaphone, thoughts. Then you trim out the bad parts. Then you trim out the mediocre parts. Then you try to find the guts to cut out a bit more. Then you polish what remains, maybe add something else.

Paul McCartney once remarked that The Beatles’ biggest songs always started so small - a few chords, words on a scrap of paper, the four of them mucking around in a hotel. Sure, sometimes they would end up doing ninety versions before settling on the final one. But it all began with something tiny.

Take enough care with those steps and the audience assumes that the final product emerged fully formed. The trash can, cutting room floor, whatever, don’t get seen. That’s one reason why it is so fascinating when we do get to glimpse the rough versions.

Like the manuscript for Laura, Nabokov’s final, unfinished book. Or the demo versions of songs (like this early version of The Long and Winding Road which is so much nicer than the final one.) Or this post about the making of Ryan Holiday’s latest book. Or this post by Jason Fried about editing sales copy. Or Conor Oberst’s early albums from when he was a teenager, recording cassettes in his parents’ basement.

Because there is something almost uncanny about seeing the rough versions. We get to see the human side of the creator. The crappy sentences, ink smudges, crossing outs, grammatical errors.

It feels more accessible, less mysterious. Like any of us are capable of creating something beautiful.

It’s good practice to get acquainted with the rough versions of work by people we admire. To hunt down their demos, or blog posts from ten years ago, first editions, drafts, anything that gives hints about the story behind the polished work we know and love.

It changes how we perceive it - and offers clues as to how we can improve our own work. Hunting for the slaughtered darlings is a good way to overcome the narrative fallacy and stop seeing grand autobiographies where none exist. 

Rather than believing that good art emerges fully formed and perfect, we can appreciate the scatty, scrambled, tangential process it took to make it. Then we can get over a few more of the barriers that prevent us from working on our own drafts.