Brandi Bain, Aliani Hawkins, Zarrar Nashman

Throughout your career, you have always been told to write a rough draft, but have you been taught how to write one? Most people have figured out the basic idea of brainstorming and planning out your rough draft. Once you have finished your first rough draft, you then go back and edit it until it has reached your perception of perfection. It may even take two or three rough drafts until you are fully satisfied with your work. However, what may be unknown is that there is a great deal of ways that you can go about writing a first rough draft. There is no set way to write a rough draft, although, it is important to keep a mind open to new ideas.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand how a “shitty first draft” can lead to high-quality writing.
  • Consider how time (like pausing and slowing down) affects writing.
  • Connect brainstorming with later phases of the writing process.
  • Distinguish between productive delays and stops and those that are unhelpful.

Key Terms

  • First draft: a version of something written or drawn (as an essay, document, or plan) that has or will have more than one version
  • Brainstorming:a technique of solving specific problems, amassing information, stimulating creative thinking, developing new ideas, etc.
  • Situational Variables: factors that change or affect the results of a study
  • Iteration: the repetition of a process
  • Looping: following a course to form a loop
  • Writers Block: the loss of ability to produce writing/words
  • Algorithm: a strict set of rules used to formulate a specific set of answers to a problem
  • Heuristics: simple but efficient rules used to formulate a more general answer to a problem


It’s Okay to Have a Shitty First Draft

There are many ways to write a rough draft. Only you know what the best method for you is. If you do not know what works best for you, try this method: the shitty first draft. Through this method, you simply write your first draft by writing down whatever comes to mind. This draft can be as messy as possible and can contain shorthand or phrases that only you will understand. When using this method there is no right or wrong way in creating your first draft. In Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” article, she states that this is the “child’s draft,” where you “let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place.” This is the child’s draft because you write for the intention of no one else but you yourself. You can let the child within you run free and write down whatever you want. This method enables you to see the “mess” that you wrote down, and if you find different lines or phrases that you love, you can take them and then create a story around it. By doing this, it allows for you to have a free imagination.

Lamott’s purpose is to dispel the notion that great writers write a masterpiece immediately and effortlessly. Writers do not just sit down at their computer feeling confident and inspired. Even though she had fears that her work would be inadequate, she was able to realize that she can start anything with a bad rough draft. Even though she had doubted every time she needed to write something, her final products would end up intelligent and thorough. To be good writer, you need to first allow for the words and ideas to come flowing out without restriction.

Assignment Suggestions

  • Free-writing: Choose any topic that you wish, and without stopping for 10 minutes, write. Be completely honest with yourself, do not edit or revise anything. The goal of this exercise is for you to get used to writing down ideas without overthinking anything. For the first few minutes, you may struggle with writing, which is completely okay. Over time, you should begin to flow more easily. The whole point is for it to be messy, which is completely fine because this is only meant for your use.
  • Drafting: Have students write a one page rough draft, using whatever technique they use. Next, have your students write a one page rough draft following a different method. Once the two rough drafts are finished, have them compare each draft. With groups of 3-4, have them discuss what they thought of the assignment and what they could take from it.



Take Your Time

Everyone struggles with writing their first rough draft. Finding the way that you write best is an extremely difficult task that can take years to accomplish. As mentioned above, there are some people who prefer writing everything down that comes to their mind. It is unorganized and frantic, leading to a need for in depth revision once the first rough draft is finished.

There is another way to write a first rough draft, and although you do not have to use it, it may be extremely helpful. It is a much more efficient and prompter approach that many successful writers use today: take your time. More than likely, if you rush a paper, it will turn out sloppy and it will not reflect your writing skills. If you ease into your writing, you are able to take a more cautious and patient approach to the subject at hand; thus, leading to greater detail and development of the text. Patience is a necessity. Without it, you will end up having to go back and fix any errors, typos, or change any sentences that you rushed putting down. Revising as you go has a lot to do with patience as well. Start with your introduction. Write it out, look back on it. Does it flow? Does it help to grab your reader’s attention? If not, go back, fix it until you are satisfied.  After every sentence you write, go back, and read it over, make sure that it is up to your highest standards. There is always room for improvement. This method works best for students who struggle to write whatever comes to mind all at once. Students that use this method like to focus on one paragraph at a time, which can be helpful.

Although revising as you write can be extremely beneficial, often it leads to what is called a “one and done” paper. This may sound great, since you do not have to spend extra time revising and fixing your paper, but often it has some consequences. Most writers will tend to miss mistakes that they could have corrected if they were to go back and revise their paper. Since you revised as you wrote, this can lead to a good final result; yet having a great final paper is even better. Even if you were to use this method as you wrote, it is important to go back over your paper again to see if there is any more improving. Often, you will find sentences or phrases that you will want to revise again, which will lead to a great paper.

Keep your patience up! remember that if you allow yourself at least 24 hours after reading the paper, you will be able to read from a completely different perspective. You will be reading from the perspective of a reader rather than the writer.

Brainstorming & Ideation

There is a great debate on if brainstorming is efficient in helping the overall process of writing or if it is simply a waste of the writers’ time. There are many writers who believe that is it more efficient to jump straight into writing and letting the ideas flow as you write. Perhaps, that is their way of brainstorming.

As younger writers, we were taught to make an outline of everything that we wanted to write about before we started an essay. However, once a writer becomes more proficient, it becomes clear that the brainstorming process and the writing step are not too different.

Have you ever come up with a final draft that is roughly compatible with your brainstorming? If that is your case, feel free to do so. Brainstorming serve as your first draft. They are only for you and they help you to organize your ideas. Still, they are not set in stone, thus they can change at any point if you think it is for the best of your writhing.

Through the writing process, the writer produces ideas that can contribute to the actual text that was not already thought of during the brainstorming process. As we are constantly thinking, and writing, we can stimulate thoughts at different intervals of our writing process. Writing is a continuous process; therefore, it is important to develop the flexibility of switching back and forth between the formation of ideas and the actual writing portion of our writing.

Importance of Drafting

One of the most important things to take into consideration when writing a rough draft is that mistakes will (should) happen. Mistakes mean that you are constantly thinking and working. While you write, it is alright to go back and change what you put down. Even though your draft may not be completed, you will start revising anyway. This process is called iteration, or the repetition of a process. This repetition is the stopping of your writing to change an error. While going through iteration, you are constantly revising a paragraph. Although it may seem like this is a bad thing, it can be helpful to your writing. You are revising whole paragraphs as you edit, which can help the writing process go through faster and more efficiently. Iteration will always occur, whether you realize it or not.

Another way to look at iteration is through looping. Looping is the process of following what originally came. To put looping into perspective, think of a loop on a rollercoaster. When you are on a rollercoaster and it loops, you go around, and the loop ends at the same point that it started. Like a rollercoaster, looping in writing does the same thing. You write a sentence, continue moving through your paper, but then you come back to that same sentence to fix or edit it. Although looping sounds like a good thing, in reality it is not. If you continue to go back to the same sentence repeatedly, you will not progress in your paper. While both iteration and looping are inevitable, it is important to understand that only iteration will be beneficial to your writing process.

Situational Variables

Carol Berkenkotter wrote an article titled “Decisions and Revisions: The Planning Strategies of a Publishing Writer,” and she talked about a study she did with Donald Murray. She had Murray completely different tasks. In one task, she made him write about death to 10-12-year old’s as if he was a part of a newspaper. She had him write this in a completely new setting to him, with an hour time limit. With all these situational variables, he panicked. In his first draft, he did not write to his best ability. Situational variables are factors that can change or affect the results in a study. Murray did not do well with kids, and he had a bad memory with death, which therefore lead to him panicking and only writing two sentences. Near the end of the time, he remembered a little girl he met, and he suddenly changed what he said.

Murray is very skilled in writing, which is why this task had a big effect on him. During the study, he was used to doing research and writing at his desk. Since he left that building completely, he did not know how to act. Also, he had other situational variables such as time limit. These variables affect how one can draft a paper. It is vital to know that no matter what, there can always be situational variables. Do not let those variables affect your writing. No one is immune to the effects of situational variables, still one should at least try to get used to work on different background noises, environments, and overall conditions. Once you have mastered all those, you are able to focus on your writing and made of it a masterpiece.

Writer’s Block

There are many different writing styles. Under certain circumstances, a student can forget how to write completely. They will not know what to write about. This is called writers’ block. The previously mentioned themes are great ways to write, but they cannot stop writers block from occurring. In fact, there is no infallible equation that prevents you from getting block at some point. However, there are some keys you can put in practice.

Keeping an open mind to different ways to write can be helpful, as suggested by Contreras in her article about anxieties. Contreras is a writer, who through hours upon hours of research found how she can try to avoid writers’ block. She used different strategies to find how she can best write. She ate different breakfasts, kept different charts, and changed how she wrote. In the end, she concluded that even though you can do the same thing every day, you may not always get the same results. Writers block will happen to every writer at least once in their life. If struck with writer’s block, come back to the topic later with a fresh head. Leaving your work and doing something else can help clear your mind, and hopefully lead to more ideas.

Writing styles

Writing styles have been argued for many years. According to Mike Rose’s article, writers have either an algorithmicapproach to writing or a heuristic approach. Algorithms focus on a strict writing structure that has a certain format for ideas. On the contrary, heuristics have loose guidelines on how a something should be written.  The algorithmic approach is like ordering at a high-end restaurant where the dish needs to be created the same way every time versus heuristics being how you would cook the same dish. Even though the dish itself may not change, there can be slight modifications as to the quantity of products used or the steps that are used to get to the final product. Rose further states that the algorithmic approach is more likely to lead to writers’ block, since there are strict rules that need to be followed. This can cause anxiety in the writer, since they know that their writing must be a certain way. Mike Rose’s article is discussed in more detail in the next chapter.


No matter how it gets done, there will always be a first draft to a paper. Every writer writes a first draft because they know that no matter how hard they try, their work will not be perfect on the first go. It takes time and patience to create a masterpiece; it can take a professional writers’ years to write a book. You need to realize that no one is perfect. Mistakes will be made, errors will occur. It is crucial to know that if you take your time and do what works for you, then your draft will develop.


Review Questions

  • How might a “shitty” first draft lead to better final drafts?
  • How does anxiety relate to writing?
  • Identify a few different writing processes, and explain when each would be useful.
  • Why might it be more efficient to revise as you write?


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Writing @ Saint Leo Copyright © 2020 by Brandi Bain, Aliani Hawkins, Zarrar Nashman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book